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.

 

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.

 

 

Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John

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It’s the most maddening of rejection letters: “I didn’t connect with the story.” Or, “This is very good and well-written, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” Writers who have been writing and submitting for a while receive these rejections from editors and agents quite often. Their novels are close, but not quite ready.

If that’s you, St. John can help. Because what’s often lacking from these manuscripts is a sympathetic hero or heroine that the reader cares strongly about. What’s also often lacking is high stakes.

Most beginning writers quickly level up through the basics. They learn story structure, they nail their big turning points, and they keep a checklist of what not to do, making sure they don’t commit any big story sins. However, a writer can do all of that and still produce a novel that feels flat to the reader. It takes emotion and meaningful conflict to make a reader care, and high tension to make her keep turning pages.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT has six sections, covering conflict, emotion, setting, tension, dialogue, and characterization. Each section has several chapters diving deeply into the heart of what makes novels work. But St. John doesn’t just give instruction. She gives writers tools. She shows writers how to do research, how to take notes, and even how to watch television with an eye toward learning writing lessons. The exercises at the end of the chapters are meaningful—not just busywork.

The only bad thing about this book is that St. John uses too many examples from movies. I get why she did it (movies are shorthand for books) but I wish she’d included more examples from novels.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is perfect for intermediate writers: those who have the technical skills and are ready to make the leap to the next level. But it’s also a great book for beginners who are honing their skills and for advanced writers who need a reminder of what really makes their readers turn to the next page.

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WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is available here.
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Rating: 5 stars
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This book is best for: beginning writers
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I recommend this book.

 

 

 

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

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In English class, many of us were taught that plot and character were separate things. They were even pitted against each other as well-meaning teachers spoke of stories that were either “plot driven” or “character driven.” Of course, we know one can’t exist without the other. The best novels are filled with fascinating characters doing amazing things. So why do we study them separately?

Even worse, writers are taught that you can structure a plot, but characters just arise organically. Weiland is here to put that nonsense to bed once and for all.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS shows writers how to craft a character just as carefully as they craft a plot. If you hate plotting because you’re a discovery writer (also known as a “pantser,”) you can map out the heroine’s emotional journey and the plot points will fall into place. If you love plotting, you can start there and make sure your heroine has the emotional turning points when she should.

Weiland breaks down the three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat. The positive change arc is the most popular. We see it in Hollywood movies and expect it from our genre fiction. Weiland shows how characters should change through a novel, with growth in each of the three acts. She also covers how minor characters change, and how to handle character arcs in trilogies and series. Using Weiland’s methods, a writer will not only create a fascinating protagonist, but one that is uniquely qualified to follow the plot.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS is amazing and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have lots of good books on my shelf about story structure and character creation, but this is the only one that considers them together. Many books pay lip service to the interaction between plot and character, but Weiland shows how they aren’t just linked, but interdependent. Character moves plot. Plot changes character. And Weiland shows you exactly how to integrate them into a perfect whole.

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CREATING CHARACTER ARCS 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

 

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

It only took me about half an hour to read this book. It’s little, with big font, perhaps meant to be a gift book, or an impulse item at the cash register. I wasn’t surprised to learn that STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST started as a blog post. When the original post went viral, publishers came calling, asking Kleon to expand it into a book.

Kleon says that STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST is really just advice to his past self. It reads like someone talking to a very young person. Not condescending, but quite basic, with little nuance.

Each short chapter has one tidbit of advice to artists and writers. Kleon advises them on lifestyle choices (marry well, stay out of debt) and craft matters (don’t worry about originality, remix ideas you receive). There isn’t much new here. It’s either something writers are already doing, like reading a lot, or something found in a hundred other how-to books and blogs. For example, Kleon advises writers to step away from the internet to get more writing done, which is just common sense.

I was ready to call STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST a one-star book. Then I lent it to a teenage musician. He was absolutely blown away. He had an instant mind meld with Austin Kleon. Maybe a heart-and-soul meld, too. My young friend refused to give the book back and has read it multiple times since I lent gave it to him. To him, it’s a five-star book.

Clearly, I am not the target audience. Kleon isn’t speaking to me. He’s speaking to beginners, especially those who haven’t read a single other how-to book. To very young artists, advice like “ignore your enemies” or “keep a notebook of ideas” is not only new, it’s exciting. My musician friend felt energized after reading it. For him, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. Anyone who is already on the writing path will find STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST entertaining, but not very exciting. But for those just starting out, it’s magic.

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STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST is available here.

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rating: ??

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers

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.

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Rating: 1 star

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