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.


Rating: 2 stars


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

Into the Woods by John Yorke (content warning)

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yorke is a TV writer and producer for the BBC, so he has an interest in story structure. His career would seem to depend on it, and yet, he treats the most basic and well-known elements of storytelling as if they were brand-new insights. Yorke references the screenwriting teachers who came before him like Vogler, Snyder, and Field, while at the same time trying to take credit for ideas they developed.

While studying the three-act structure, Yorke noticed that act two was longer than the others, with a distinct dividing line in the middle. In short, he learned about Midpoints. That’s when Yorke decided that the three-act structure was really a five-act structure, and INTO THE WOODS is littered with charts to “prove” his point. It’s still the exact same story structure. He simply renamed the parts.

All of INTO THE WOODS is like this. Yorke describes some well-known facet of storycraft and then pretends he was the first to discover it. The first chapters are about story structure, while the second half of the book deals with characterization, dialogue, and exposition. Yorke ends with a long and boring history of TV shows. His entire point here is that TV shows either end because the characters change, and therefore their story is finished, or the characters don’t change at all (such as in sitcoms) and the show gets repetitive. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been said before in better books.

Yorke’s examples are mostly random and never illustrate his points in any meaningful way. In fact, his points are so general that nearly any example from nearly any movie or TV show would fit. INTO THE WOODS reads like a paper from a student who did a lot of research and took a lot of notes, and is determined to cram it all into the text, whether it fits or not.

Throughout, Yorke keeps hinting at a big reveal. He keeps promising that he’s going to explain why humans tell stories. Like a late-night infomercial that keeps hyping a gadget before showing it to you, Yorke hints that his upcoming insight is going to be brilliant. Finally, he shares the secret. Are you ready for this?

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world.

That’s it.

That’s the insight that Yorke thinks is so groundbreaking that he spends an entire book leading up to it.

All this would probably add up to a two-star rating but what sinks it to a one-star is Yorke’s misogyny. The vast majority of his examples are taken from macho movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and every single one of the experts he quotes is a man. He brings up sexual assault at least once per chapter, as if he’s fascinated by the subject. Out of the thousands of examples he could use to illustrate his points, over and over he chooses examples of women being assaulted by men. The only woman-centric movie he cites is Thelma and Louise, and you can guess which aspect of it he’s fixated on. He even reimagines the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the children raped and murdered.

I never thought I’d have to put a content warning in a book review, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s another warning: don’t buy this book.


Rating: one star


I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

Writing Without Rules by Jeff Somers


WRITING WITHOUT RULES might be the most annoying book I’ve ever read. Somers contradicts himself in almost every chapter, gives shockingly bad advice, and generally comes across as a dude-bro with the maturity of a teenager.

The book is divided into two sections: writing and selling what you write. Some of Somers’ advice is good, some isn’t. The problem is, the good advice can be found in other, better books and the bad advice is so out-there that following it will actually hold writers back. That is, if writers can actually wade through the numerous inconsistencies to figure out what Somers is trying to say. For example, he claims that he never uses beta readers. However his wife and his best friend always read and critique his manuscripts before he sends them out. Does Somers not know that they are his betas? The entire book is like this. Whatever Somers says on one page, you can be sure he will say its opposite a few pages later.

The footnotes in WRITING WITHOUT RULES sometimes cover half the page and bleed onto the next. Most of the footnotes are to make a bad joke, explain the joke, or ask you to please laugh at the joke. It’s clear that Somers finds himself delightful and thinks the rest of the world does too. But in reality, he’s just another entitled guy who assumes he can do his job half-assed and still succeed, as long as he does it with a nudge and a wink.

Somers revels in his mediocrity. He goes on at length about how he went to college because he thought it would be easy and never studied while he was there. He found both his agent and his publisher through such an improbable series of coincidences that the only true advice he can offer is something along the lines of, “Be lucky, like me.” Even writing a how-to book was something he did on a whim, not out of a desire to help writers, but because his agent thought it would be good for his brand.

His only saving grace seems to be that he writes nearly nonstop. If Somers is to be believed (and this isn’t a given) he’s extremely prolific. He’s able to do almost everything wrong and still achieve a little bit of success because he’s selling a tiny fraction of his seemingly endless output.

The friend who lent me this book said, “I almost feel bad for Somers. Like he could be so much more successful if he stopped following his own advice.”

I believe we’ve reached a new low on the Writing Slices blog. I’ve found a book that not only will hurt aspiring writers if they read it, but probably hurt the person who wrote it.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Writing the Novel From Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block or Writing Fiction for all You’re Worth by James Scott Bell instead of this book.


The Scribbler Box


In a moment of weakness, when I was feeling in need of some self-care, I signed up for a six-month subscription to THE SCRIBBLER BOX. That was a mistake. Now, every month, the postal carrier delivers another reminder that I wasted my money.

I liked the idea of it. This is a subscription box tailor-made for authors. It promised insider tips from authors, agents, and publishers, as well as unique surprises and one hardcover book. Each month, there would be a YouTube chat with a publishing insider, which seemed pretty darned exciting to me.

What came in the mail was underwhelming, and each month seemed a little bit worse than the month before. I expected the books to be a mix of genres, but they were all YA books and women’s fiction. The “insider tips” were stapled-together booklets of the most generic writing advice I’ve ever seen. Ditto the YouTube chats. Each one was an hour of the hosts asking softball questions while the guests gave vague answers. Someone looking for honest publishing advice would be better off spending an hour reading the blog of a good agent, where real advice can be found.

The box also comes with office supplies like bookmarks and highlighters and paperclips. One month, the “special” surprise was a bic pen. I actually laughed out loud when I opened that month’s box. A bic pen? Really? The whole promise of a subscription box is that they will deliver unique items, but I’ve seen better tchotchkes at OfficeMax.

Literally the best thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box the stuff comes in. It’s just the right size for shipping or gifting books and it’s decorated with a super cute typewriter graphic. Last month, my subscription box sat on my counter, unopened, for two days until I needed the box for something, so I finally opened it and dumped out the contents so I could use the box.

I never should have signed up for this subscription and I don’t recommend you do, either. The next time I’m in need of some retail therapy, I’ll go to the office supply store or the book store and fill my own cart, because the only good thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box itself.


The Scribbler Box can be found here.


Rating: 1 star


The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

I can tell you what’s wrong with the first five pages of Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Actually, it goes wrong at the first sentence. “Most people are against books on writing on principle.” One has only to walk into any bookstore and gaze at the vast shelves of writer’s how-to books to see that Lukeman is incorrect.

But getting things right isn’t the point of Lukeman’s book. He’s more interested in complaining. He’s been a successful literary agent for years, but any writer can query any agent, so Lukeman has seen it all. The premise of THE FIRST FIVE PAGES is that he can judge the quality of an entire book by reading just the opening pages. I’ve no doubt this is true. I also admire his goal. He wants writers everywhere to stop making mistakes so obvious that they can be spotted in such a small sample. However, if this book is his remedy, I doubt he will achieve his goal any time soon.

It must be frustrating to watch writers make the same bonehead mistakes over and over. The problem is, those boneheads aren’t the audience for this book. Writers who buy how-to books are serious about the craft. We are investing time and money trying to improve. We don’t deserve to be bitch-slapped for daring to write an awkward sentence, and we certainly don’t deserve to be talked down to.

From the first page: “By scrutinizing the following examples of what not to do, you will learn to spot these ailments in your own writing; by working with the solutions and exercises, you may, over time, bridge the gap and come to a realization of what to do. There is no guarantee that you will come to this realization…” Clearly, Lukeman is not holding out much hope for us.

Lukeman has a set of criteria that he looks for in a manuscript, and has arranged his chapters accordingly. He first looks at presentation and formatting. If that’s okay, he next looks for excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. If he doesn’t see too many, he looks at the voice, and so on. At no time is he looking for a good story well told. He is only looking for reasons to dismiss. He freely admits that agents want to reject manuscripts. Why? Is it so they can get to the good stuff sooner? No. They reject manuscripts as quickly as possible to reduce their workload.

In the end, even if I could find useful material in this book, I couldn’t get past the tone. The entire book is a 200 page rant. Advice, when he gives it, is so basic as to be useless (cut adverbs, don’t use clichés, format your manuscript correctly, etc.). The examples and writing exercises are downright insulting. Nobody who buys this book writes this badly. I understand that he is exaggerating to make a point, but the result is–again–one learns what not to do without ever learning the correct way to do it.

“How not to get rejected” is a far cry from “how to write a good novel” and Lukeman never attempts to move from one to the other. If you want people to stop writing badly, complaining will not work. The only way to keep people from writing badly is by teaching them to write well. Lukeman never does. I suspect he can’t.

With so many other books on my shelf that actually show me what to do, I am sorry I wasted my time on one that does not.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend you read Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or Hooked by Les Edgerton instead of this book.