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 understanding the 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

 

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

 

Creating Your Author Brand by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Branding isn’t something novelists think about much. It seems like something the head honchos at Pepsi and Google should worry about, not the business of an author. And the book marketing gurus always tell us “the author is the brand.” Or is it the series? If the author’s name is big enough on the cover and all the covers in the series look alike, the author is branded, right? Rusch tackles these—and many other—myths, starting with the book’s title. Creating is a verb, and it underscores that an author’s brand doesn’t just happen. A writer has an active role to play, whether she realizes it or not.

Rusch originally started writing CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND on her blog, but questions from her readers poured in and as she started addressing them, she realized she had a book. Rusch has experience in every aspect of the field, from author (traditional and indie) to magazine editor to book publisher, so branding is something she’s thought about from more than one angle and her expertise shows through.

Rusch divides her book into the early and intermediate stages of an author’s career. She breaks down the difference between brand identity (what an author thinks her brand is) and brand image (what the public thinks the brand is). She teaches writers how to identify the target audience and how to inspire brand loyalty. She also has different advice for growing an audience depending on the author’s goals and how many books she has out.

Rusch also does something I’ve never seen another marketing expert do: she cautions against fast growth. Most marketers promise huge sales and bestseller status if you’ll only follow their simple steps. Rusch knows how foolhardy that is. She’s seen firsthand how careers spike and then crash due to over-marketing. Readers are individuals, after all, and you can only grow an audience one reader at a time.

My only quibble is that a few chapters were overly long. Sometimes Rusch takes a little while to get to the main point. I get the sense that she’s thinking out loud (or through her fingers) and a few of her insights were discovered as she wrote them. She could have gone back and tightened those chapters. But sometimes, knowing how the author came to her conclusions is the whole point, so this might not be a concern for some readers.

I like that CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND is conceptual, not prescriptive. Rusch is here to teach the deep principles of branding, not a one-time formula to follow. The latter might be simple, but it will probably only work in the short term. Rusch respects her readers and knows that when we understand the underlying concepts, we can apply them to our own work to keep our branding healthy for the long term.

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CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND 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.

Blake’s Blogs by Blake Snyder

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I am a huge fan of SAVE THE CAT. I read it when it came out in 2005, and it changed my life. I talk about Snyder’s method constantly, and recommend his books whenever I have a chance.

Blake Snyder died just four years after SAVE THE CAT was published, and writers have been mourning ever since. So you can imagine my delight when I came across BLAKE’S BLOGS, a book of what his estate considers his best blog posts. But my delight soon turned to disappointment when I realized that this slim volume was really just a cash grab, one last chance for Snyder’s heirs to turn his writing into money.

The posts aren’t bad, but they are ten years old and most of them haven’t aged well. The beauty of a blog is that is captures what a writer is thinking about in that very moment. So there are posts about movies Snyder had recently seen, classes he’d been teaching, and his thoughts on the Oscar nominees of 2008. He rehashes some of what’s in his classic instruction book, but he doesn’t go deeper or come up with fresh insights. While it’s nice to have the blog posts arranged in chapters, the division is rather artificial and makes it seem like an instruction book when it’s really just a book of musings.

I’d like to say that BLAKE’S BLOGS is for the die-hard Snyder fan only, but I’m the biggest Snyder fangirl of them all, and even I didn’t like this book. In the end, BLAKE’S BLOGS made me sad. I wished this book could be better than it was, I mourned a talented teacher who died way too young, and I was embarrassed for Snyder’s relatives who put this product into the world.

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BLAKE’S BLOGS can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder instead of 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.

 

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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I used to scoff at people who needed an internet blocker while writing. If they were getting distracted by social media, maybe they simply didn’t love writing enough. Not anymore! Nowadays, I’m testing programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey and asking my friends which blocker works best.

Distractions are everywhere. Even worse, they are affecting our brains. The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more our brain trains us to be distractible. Computers and social media are so enticing (maybe even addictive) it’s no wonder we can’t concentrate anymore. Uninterrupted time is rare and becoming rarer. But concentrating deeply, being in “the zone,” is exactly what writers need to do. DEEP WORK has some excellent advice for writers who need to slow down, concentrate, and produce more books.

DEEP WORK is divided into two parts: theory and practice. In part one, Newport lays out why deep work is rare, valuable, and meaningful. He distinguishes between “shallow work” (things like email and meetings) and “deep work” (things like writing, computer coding, and inventing). Shallow work will make you look—and feel—busy, but only deep work truly matters. After all, nobody gets a promotion because they are great at email.

But a persuasive argument for deep work is no good without an action plan. Newport has advice for scheduling deep work, banishing distractions, and cutting out as much shallow work as possible. I found Newport’s suggestions extremely practical and not at all hard.

Newport also suggests cutting out all social media. This last one is probably not realistic for a writer, since social media is our main source of networking and fans expect to interact with us online. However, we certainly can all limit our use of social media, especially during prime writing time.

As much as I loved this book, I do think Newport has a blind spot. He cites numerous examples of men doing deep work, from Carl Jung to Nate Silver, but he quotes few women, and ignores gendered expectations. Women, especially married women, are expected by our society to take up domestic and childcare work, as well as emotional labor such as daily scheduling and managing the social life of the couple. Men are rewarded for ignoring all that and retreating into work in a way that women are not. You can’t do deep work when you’re interrupted all the time and women are most often the ones being interrupted.

DEEP WORK is not for everyone. I can’t imagine a nurse or a waiter or an electrician getting much out of this book, since their jobs are fast-paced and extremely interactive. Newport’s advice is for a certain kind of worker: a knowledge worker who works alone. In short, writers are the ideal audience.

Spending lots of time “in the zone” is crucial for writers, especially new writers without a book contract, who have to rely on their own willpower to get a book written. Without deep work, writers can drift from shallow task to shallow task, looking “busy” the whole time but never getting any of their books written.

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DEEP WORK is available 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.