Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “Ready, Set, Novel!” by Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant, and Tavia Stewart-Streit

Full Title: Ready, Set, Novel! Plan and Plot Your Upcoming Masterpiece
Author: Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant, and Tavia Stewart-Streit from National Novel Writing Month
Published: October 2011 by Chronicle Books
Genres: Nonfiction, Books & Writing, Writing Fiction, Authorship, Writing Skills
Edition Details: 160 pages, trade paperback
Source: {Purchased – New}
Rating: {4/5 stars}

First Glance

Woohoo! It’s a NaNoWriMo workbook! I love workbooks!

In all seriousness, this was the last NaNoWriMo-specific book on my list. I mostly bought it to complete the NaNoWriMo mini collection.

Positive Bits

The NaNoWriMo team really did create a workbook for writers that fits the formatting of the event itself. These are the hands-on activities I said were missing in the previous books; in fact, I’m surprised they didn’t make a combination set somewhere along the way.

I love the playful attitude of this workbook. There’s a page that’s literally a high five, and you’re supposed to celebrate your successes by slapping the hand on the page. There’s also a boot for your “kick in the pants” as needed. Silly, but cute!

For a newbie writer with little or no experience with creating characters from scratch, I think the activities focused on that process are particularly helpful. When I was younger, I basically kidnapped the personality of people close to me (while changing their names). The workbook gives you more thorough activities for character building.

Less Enjoyable Bits

I’m not sure this book is useful if you’ve written multiple stories in the past. Many of the activities are super simplified processes that you internalize as you grow, and that makes this workbook feel less helpful than I’d hoped it to be.

Workbooks, by their very nature, have little actual writing in them. There’s tons of blank space for the person actually doing the work. That said, I sprinted through this book and found myself disappointed at how short it was outside of the times you were supposed to pause your reading and do an exercise.

It’s a silly complaint, but I prefer workbooks that are bound in a way that allows easier use. The spine on this book (while new) is very stiff, so actually writing in the workbook itself would be irritating until you broke it in. There’s not much to do about that, though, unless the publisher wanted to use the thinner paper and binding of a traditional school workbook instead of trade paperback binding methods.

Tidbits Worth Repeating*

*Note: I didn’t have a lot of quote to share, because this workbook is mostly a collection of exercises that don’t lend themselves to epic quotability.

The hardest part is behind you. Your story is here. Your characters are waiting. It’s time for the next phase of this bookish adventure to begin. You ready? You’re set. Let’s novel. {page 117}

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – particularly for new writers. If you benefit from surfing Tumblr or Pinterest for character creation tips and the like, then this book has a decent collection of worksheets to help you out. This workbook would also be a great help with pre-planning your novel, doing the outlining and world building required to get started.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon

Full Title: Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Author: Austin Kleon
Published: February 2012 by Workman Publishing
Genres: Nonfiction, Arts & Photography, Art Therapy, Study & Teaching
Edition Details: 160 pages, trade paperback
Source: {Purchased – Used}
Rating: {3.5/5 stars}

First Glance

I ran across this book in the thrift store, tucked between old textbooks and random nonfiction. I didn’t have to read more than a couple of points from the back cover before I decided to purchase it. Why? Because the back cover is a numbered list, and #3 says “Write the book you want to read.” (That’s my favorite piece of writing advice.)

Positive Bits

This book is a ridiculously quick read. I finished it all in one lunch break (less than an hour), and I didn’t skip or skim anything. The artsy visuals throughout really make the ideas presented in the text quick and easy to conceptualize.

There were so many good nuggets of information! One of the best things about Kleon’s tips is that they were applicable to any kind of creative effort. While I enjoy a good writer’s guide, I like to think that creativity isn’t so narrowly focused that we have to read ONLY writer’s books or ONLY photography blogs. Creativity’s core focus is to create. Anyone who embraces that idea is alright with me.

Kleon had many functional ideas that fit with habits I already have. For example, he tells you to collect books even if you don’t intend to read them immediately. I’m a proud bookdragon, and my hoard is wonderous! He also reminds us to collect praise as much as we collect critiques, because there will always come a time when you need a reminder about why you write in the first place. My own “praise file” includes messages from a boy and his mom, asking to use one of my poems for a presentation in school. It still makes me smile!

Less Enjoyable Bits

There’s an entire section that speaks against the use of computers (or digital creativity methods in general). As a digital native, my creativity is enhanced by using electronics. I can type faster than I can handwrite! One valid point was that the temptation to delete the things you create and hate is too great (oh god, like that rhyme!) when all it takes is a click. But it only took a week or so of actively practicing the habit of NOT deleting anything I wrote to remove that temptation from my writing habits. [link to blog post about this here]

Kleon also talks about the disconnect an artist feels from things created on a glass screen… but I don’t experience that problem. Sure, I love a good printout of my newest story or poetry collection, but I can still sit in awe of a digitized piece with a wordcount beyond my starting goals. I guess I just take issue with anyone who disses the digital and insists that “old school” or “hands on” is the ONLY way to art. If you browse the photomanipulation section of a site like deviantART [link?], you’ll see why that attitude needs to head out the door. Digital is just a new medium, that’s all.

In a weird way, this book was almost too short. There’s a second book called “Show Your Work” [get full title details] that sounds interesting, but I think they could’ve easily been one book instead of two. Then again, I could be wrong and the information could be incompatible. I haven’t read the other book, so I can only go by the description.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

(1) Steal like an artist.
(2) Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
(3) Write the book you want to read.
(4) Use your hands.
(5) Side projects and hobbies are important.
(6) The Secret: Do good work and share it with people.
(7) Geography is no longer our master.
(8) Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
(9) Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
(10) Creativity is subtraction.
{back cover}

We make art because we like art. We’re drawn to certain kinds of work because we’re inspired by people doing that work. All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction. The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best – write the story you want to read. {page 47}

Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online – the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to. {pages 102-104}

Is it worth the coin?

Maybe – but I think it’s too shallow on the topic of creativity to be worth the published price.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “Create Your Writer Platform” by Chuck Sambuchino

Full Title: Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author
Author: Chuck Sambuchino
Published: November 2012 by Writer’s Digest Books
Genres: Nonfiction, Web Development & Design, Social Media, Business Technology
Edition Details: 248 pages, trade paperback
Source: {Purchased – Used}
Rating: {4/5 stars}

First Glance

It’s going to sound silly as I write out a blog post that will be shared across various social media channels, but… this book had me both intrigued and a bit leery. I’m not into the Influencer culture, the idea of success being measured by social media reach. However, I recognize that I follow people I like online; they’ve built the kind of communities and online interactions that leave you feeling good when they’re done. So clearly, a writer can benefit from using social media to interact with their readers, other writers, and the bookdragons of the world at large.

Positive Bits

Sambuchino made a lot of sense in his instructions. He gave concrete measures for recognizing successful social media platform creation, rather than generalizing. I like numbers and goals; it’s part of why I like NaNoWriMo’s 50K in 30 days, because it’s a concrete goal and timeline. This book has many examples of ways to track your platform growth.

My favorite suggestion (with tangible focus) was to Google yourself. If you’re the majority of the first page results, then you’re doing it right when it comes to social media and building a platform. I’ve done it, and my years of blogging and sharing poems have led to a large number of my posts coming up in Google Images in particular. It’s kind of neat!

I also appreciated the recognition of how important community can be. You don’t have to be a writer all alone; in fact, online writing groups can be ridiculously helpful in giving you inspiration, constructive criticism, and opportunities to give back.

Less Enjoyable Bits

A large portion of the advice in this book focused on the kinds of writers who want to run in certain circles. The authors who give paid speeches in various conventions and college events. The writers who become a household name in their field.

The focus made on networking made sense, but sometimes it pushed the boundaries of realistic choices for a person to make. For example, Sambuchino mentions working in your desired field (in relation to nonfiction writers) even if it means accepting a pay cut. That’s not terrible advice… except people who are already scraping by paycheck to paycheck can’t just switch jobs for fun. No one needs to actually choose to become a starving artist to succeed.

I felt like the section on Facebook usage was oddly out-of-date for such a recently published book. I’ve had pages for various groups and topics over the past decade, and you don’t have to friend people to interact with them on a page you manage. So the entire description of how to use Facebook effectively was out of sync with the reality of Facebook.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

You don’t have to go it alone.

Creating a large and effective platform from scratch is, to say the least, a daunting task. But you don’t have to swim out in the ocean alone. You can – and are encouraged to – work with others. {page 40}

You can only best understand and help members of your niche/community if you’re heavily involved with them. Your goal is to join and participate in any kind of community that links you with those who share your interests – and by participate I’m talking meaningful interaction, not status updates on Facebook that tell people to buy your book. {page 66}

Create content with passion and gusto, and build a community around yourself. The goal is simply to create a huge readership and to help that some of that visibility translates to book sales. No double it will, though exact numbers will be difficult to come by. {page 84}

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – if you don’t know where to start with social media and all the online mumbo jumbo associated with marketing yourself and your writing. Be warned, though, that this book is largely focused on how a nonfiction writer gets attention. The tips and tricks can crossover, but they don’t always translate into fiction work.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “The Kick-Ass Writer” by Chuck Wendig

Full Title: The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, & Earn Your Audience
Author: Chuck Wendig
Published: November 2014 by Writer’s Digest Books
Genres: Nonfiction, Writing Skills, Authorship, Creative Writing & Composition
Edition Details: 282 pages, trade paperback
Source: {Purchased – Used}
Rating: {3.5/5 stars}

First Glance

I’d seen Pinterest pins of various quotes from this book, particularly during the NaNoWriMo season. Considering his mouth (foul words and verbal slaps in the face), I knew I’d likely be both amused and annoyed with Wendig’s style.

Positive Bits

I love lists! A list forces a writer to be concise and to really make sense of their thoughts. Listmaking is one of my favorite writing tools, both for vague story outlines and for stretching my creative writing muscles.

Between the jokes and silly metaphors, Wendig built a legitimate collection of writing tips I think any author could benefit from. Actually, I love the fact that the book’s lists make quoting Wendig’s points so easy! After all, every statement is numbered.

Wendig’s voice is approachable. There is no master-student dynamic in this book. Instead, he gives you that smartass friend who’s telling you all about his opinions. If nonfiction usually bores you to tears, it’s likely due to a teacher’s tone being used throughout the text. Some people just learn better from peers.

Less Enjoyable Bits

One list is fun. A dozen lists can still be entertaining. But 282 pages of lists? I’m sure it made writing the book itself much easier, but lists with the exact same format can get a bit mind-numbing.

Wendig ended up with a lot of repetition and contradiction between his lists. For example, he discussed how a plot generally needs a beginning, middle, and end on a list only to repeat that point again on another list a few pages later (maybe with a new joke). At the same time, he’d mention how you have to know how the story ends, except that you don’t have to know until you get there, but be sure to write the ending first, unless you don’t. It was a little frustrating.

I think that Wendig’s humor is best ingested in small amounts, like rich chocolate cake. Too much, and you just get sick of it. To be fair, though, I expected to end up feeling this way by the end of the book; I follow his blog, so I’m well aware of his voice and how I react to it.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

Stop Running Away: Right here is your story. Your manuscript. Your career. So why are you running in the other direction? Your writing will never chase you – you need to chase your writing. If it’s what you want, pursue it. {page 53}

Stories Have Power: Outside the air we breathe and the blood in our bodies, the one thing that connects us modern humans today with the shamans and emperors and serfs and alien astronauts of our past is a heritage – a lineage – of stories. Stories move the world at the same time they explain our place in it. They help us understand ourselves and those near to us. Never treat a story as a shallow, wan little thing. A good story is as powerful as the bullet fired from an assassin’s gun. {page 21}

[On why you write] You do it because you love it. You do it because you want to be read. You tell stories because you’re a storyteller. And because stories matter. {page 277}

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – but check out his blog terribleminds first to get a taste of his style. I’m not sure I’d purchase this book full price, but seeing it on a used shelf for a few bucks? Sure. To each their own preferences.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “Breathing In, Breathing Out” by Ralph Fletcher

Full Title: Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook
Author: Ralph Fletcher
Published: November 18, 1996 by Heinemann
Genres: Nonfiction, Reference, Studying, Language & Grammar
Edition Details: 112 pages, trade paperback
Source: Purchased – Used
Rating: {3/5 stars}

First Glance

Approaching this book, I made special concessions to its age. Written in 1996, this book was guaranteed to use a different style and voice than modern writing guides; after all, it’s over two decades old!

That said, it surprised me that the book is labeled for ages 5-17 on Amazon. Skimming through the pages, I wouldn’t think of it being aimed any earlier than middle or high school. Maybe a teacher could translate it for easier use?

Positive Bits

As someone who uses a digital journal (outside of this blog) to ramble on and on, Fletcher’s ideas about how to develop a writer’s notebook validate my own practices. It’s one thing to know a process works for you; it’s another to have someone else give you multiple examples of famous authors who do the same process for the same reasons.

I’ve always had a hard time at conceptualizing a writer’s notebook as a whole. I have Pinterest boards with writing quotes and story prompts, but they’re separate from my Google Drive folder of story ideas and scene snippets. While I prefer a digitized “notebook”, Fletcher’s explanations and examples left me intrigued enough to consider switching (at least in part) to a physical notebook.

The sections break the idea of a writer’s notebook into manageable pieces. I appreciate how often he reminds us to play with words until they come naturally, especially in the beginning.

Fletcher’s personal samples of older writings are painful… and yet painfully familiar! We all stumble through writing while we find our voice. One of the challenges (and joys) of looking at our older writings is finding the recyclable ideas among the rubbish.

Less Enjoyable Bits

I didn’t connect to Fletcher’s voice. From the start, I struggled to make myself read more than a handful of pages at a time. For such a short book, it took me two (2!) whole months to finally get to the end.

Fletcher is clearly a poet. We often get caught up in metaphors and imagery when it’s less than helpful. I feel like many of his chapters were weighed down by odd amounts of poetic prose and awkward word choice.

He turned me off when he started complaining about writing prompts and those who swear by them. It felt too much like writer’s elitism, like he’s just too good for such trivial writing exercises. (To be fair, Fletcher moved past that later in the same section, but the impression lingered.)

Tidbits Worth Repeating

Writing puts you in a state of ‘constant composition,’ and this is particularly true of writing in a notebook. Regular notebook writing acts as a wakeup call, a daily reminder to keep all your senses alert. This starts a cycle that reinforces itself. Writing down small details gets you in the habit of seeking out the important small things in your world. These details in turn often lead you to new material you never knew you had. {page 19}

It’s not that I try to write badly in my notebook. But I know I will be doing exactly that, just like countless other writers before me. If you read the notebooks of famous writers you’ll find some wonderful writing, sure enough, but you’ll also find pages and pages of stuff that is surprisingly boring and tedious. In a strange sort of way I find this comforting and even inspiring. {page 56}

The notebook is the place to take care of the writer inside you. To keep the writing flame lit amid the winds of indifference. This is important because nobody else will care about your writing as much as you. {page 84}

Is it worth the coin?

No – at least not at the prices I’ve seen online. The list price is $25, but even the cheaper (used) options are about $6 after shipping. I bought this book used on a dollar book day at our local Half Price Books, so it was probably worth the buck.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “No Plot? No Problem! Novel-Writing Kit” by Chris Baty

Full Title: No Plot? No Problem! Novel-Writing Kit: A Treasure Chest of Tools, Tips, and Righteous Gear to Help You Bash Out a Novel in a Month
Author: Chris Baty, Founder of National Novel Writing Month
Published: September 2006 by Chronicle Books
Genres: Nonfiction, Writing & Books, Authorship, Writing Skills, Writing Fiction
Edition Details: 48 pages, trade paperback – kit also includes a calendar, daily inspiration cards, coupons and peptalk letters, and the Radiant Badge of the Triumphant Wordsmith
Source: {Purchased – New}
Rating: {5/5 stars}

First Glance

I know I reviewed the original NaNoWriMo book, but I happened to get this kit on clearance at Barnes & Noble somewhere along the way as well. I’ll be brief, as there are few thoughts about this kit that don’t align with my review of the 2004 book.

Positive Bits

Humor is still Baty’s key approach, and it fit well with the pacing of this smaller kit’s book. The activities mentioned as similar to those in the core book, but this kit focuses on the basic details and leaves the actual accomplishment of each activity up to the writer.

I enjoyed the titles and descriptions of people who you might invite to join you. Instead of just suggesting family and friends, Baty takes the time to explain archetypes for each kind of person. A fellow writer. A challenge taker. A book group(ie).

Less Enjoyable Bits

Honestly, there’s a clear echo. The mini book in this kit would easily take the place of purchasing the full No Plot? No Problem! if you were choosing between A or B. You’re losing the history of NaNoWriMo and some depth to the exercises offered, but the basic explanation and guidance for writing a novel in a month are still present.

However, this kit really is the bare bones of NaNoWriMo guidance. It’s good… but not very different from just reading bits and pieces of the peptalk emails you get from NaNoWriMo’s website during November.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

The Radiant Badge of the Triumphant Wordsmith {throughout}

I just really love the over-the-top name! Maybe I should add that to my resume…

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – I think the kit has been on the clearance shelves of Barnes & Noble for the past year or so. But even at full price, this kit is just playful enough to get you going on your NaNoWriMo adventure. Also, there’s just something extra enjoyable about using a kit rather than just referencing a book.

Posted in [writer resources]

[Resource Review] “No Plot? No Problem!” by Chris Baty

Full Title: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days
Author: Chris Baty, Founder of National Novel Writing Month
Published: September 2004 by Chronicle Books (apparently I got a used first edition)
Genres: Nonfiction, Writing &  Books, Authorship, Writing Skills, Writing Fiction
Edition Details: 176 pages, trade paperback
Source: {Purchased – Used}
Rating: {4.5/5 stars}

First Glance

Let’s be real. As someone who’s participated in NaNoWriMo for years, I was destined to enjoy this book. My only first glance impression was that my edition might be quite different from whatever’s being sold now (14 years later). Actually, my wife’s joked about buying me the newest 2014 expanded edition just so I can compare the two!

Positive Bits

Humor is often hit and miss. Baty found a good balance, I think, in using generalized jokes and dorky humor throughout the book, all without crossing the line into anything questionable (i.e. sexist, racist, ageist, etc.).

One activity I loved the idea of is the Magna Carta (and Magna Carta II). The short version is that you make a list of things you love in a story (I) and things you can’t stand (II). Those lists then serve as a guide when you feel a bit listless or lost in your plot. I’ve done this activity before (calling it “reader research”), and I think it’s a marvelous way to really discover both preferences and skills.

The language of this book (and concepts presented) never aim over the head of anyone who can read a chapter book. I think a middle schooler could get just as much use and enjoyment out of this book as their grandparent. Baty’s voice is conversational enough to make reading each chapter feel like a chat over coffee (or cocoa).

Less Enjoyable Bits

Every single time Baty directs the reader to take full advantage of company supplies or time, I cringe. Maybe that worked a decade ago, but many companies now record all emails sent and received (for legal reasons). Personal documents aren’t actually personal. So aside from the questionable ethics of not working at work, you have the reality that today’s companies will be far less naive about your digital activities (and printing). That said, a wireless keyboard and a smartphone can lend more honest opportunities to write on breaks and lunch (while avoiding company resources and time).

This book doesn’t include a lot of suggestions on your process itself. It covers the basics of your word count, your timeline, and then a weekly breakdown of how (he assumes) you’ll feel as the event goes forward. Small stories and side notes from previous NaNoWriMo participants help mediate this absence, but it still left me a little disappointed.

Baty wrote for non-writers. His pep talks and advice are ideal for them… and less useful for the rest of us. I think writers need a different approach, largely because we have a familiarity with the process that also makes us more nervous about success versus failure.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadlineGive someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen. {page 14}

The things that you appreciate as a reader are also the things you’ll likely excel at as a writer. {page 86}

[Talking about people playing sports or videos games for fun on weekends, not to become famous] They do it because the challenge of the game simply feels good.  They do it because they like to compete, because they like spending time with friends, because it feels really, really nice to just lose themselves in the visceral pleasure of an activity. Novel-writing is just a recreational sport where you don’t have to get up out of your chair. {page 172}

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – I’d even buy this book at full price, and I rarely do that with any book. While I didn’t get as much active assistance from this book as I’d hoped, the history of NaNoWriMo and its bare bones fascinated me.