Category Archives: Writing book reviews

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Writing books – Writing Deep Point of View

2016-01-26 08.47.57Point of view is one technique that many beginning writers struggle with. Writing Deep Point of View by Rayne Hall is number 13 of a series of 16 Writer’s Craft books. This one explains the appeal of deep POV to the writer and to the reader, and guides you through strategies to hook the reader and pull them into the story and into the narrator’s mind.

 

Twenty chapters take you through topics such as the sensory experience, trigger and response, male and female POV, switching POV, and cover topics such as how to get across what other characters feel and what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

 

The book is available in both kindle and paperback formats, although the kindle version offers much better value for money. I found it very useful as a reminder of the purpose and techniques of deep point of view, and it covers the topic in suitable depth, with plenty of examples. As a bonus, two complete short stories by the author illustrate the strength and flexibility of deep point of view in getting to the heart of a story and in twisting traditional stories.

 

Each book in the Writer’s Craft series covers one aspect of writing in great detail, and together they serve as handy, useful guides.

 

Writing books – Basic English Grammar for Dummies

IMG_1605[1]Part of an editor’s job is to ensure that the grammar in a text is sound, but it is still a good idea for writers to be as confident as they can be in their own writing, so that they can make their message clear. Basic English Grammar for Dummies by Geraldine Woods provides a way for writers to check up on the basic rules. Working your way through the book, trying out the exercises and checking your answers, will boost your confidence and clarify those pesky rules around apostrophes, capital letters and prepositional phrases, as well as providing guidance on appropriate style issues in different situations.

 

One test of a grammar book is how it deals with the pesky serial comma; in this book, it is explained as optional in UK English, used only when it helps to clarify the text, and always used by most writers in US English.

 

Sections include Getting Started with Basic English Grammar, Creating Correct Sentences, Punctuation and Capitalisation, Grammar in Action (writing in electronic media, writing at school or work etc), Common Errors and the Part of Tens (quick lists of ways to improve, mistakes to avoid etc).

 

There are all the usual features of a Dummies book – tips, warnings, things to remember – and the tone is light and conversational, without getting silly or talking down to the reader.

 

This book is written primarily for UK English, so if you use a different format then just be aware that this might account for any differences. However, the differences are few enough that this book would be useful for anyone writing in any variant of English.

 

Writing books – On Writing

On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King is probably one of the most famous books around on the topic of writing. I first read it years ago, and while working through books for this blog I decided it was about time I read it again.

 

I was half-expecting to slog through the autobiography section, but found that King tells stories in such an entertaining fashion that I was laughing out loud. It’s not a complete story of his life, but some of the highlights and stories from his childhood and early experiences as a writer.

 

The second section, The Toolbox, starts off with an anecdote about his uncle’s old toolbox, and develops into a description of what he sees as the writer’s toolbox: the essential tools that every writer should take with them everywhere, in order to be able to use whatever tool best does any given job. Here, the importance of issues such as grammar and vocabulary are discussed.

 

The third section, On Writing, contains more general advice on writing, including King’s own writing processes. You might or might not agree with all his points – he is actively against plotting, preferring to allow the story to develop from the situation and characters, for example – but you will find them enlightening and thought-provoking.

 

The fourth section, On Living: A Postscript, describes his experiences on being hit by a van and badly injured. Again, King brings the story to life with a few vivid details, and the account is very readable.

 

The final sections include an example of the first and second draft of an excerpt, with detailed explanations as to why he made the changes he did, and a detailed list of recommended books. King is a prolific reader – one thing he is clear on is that if you don’t have the time to read a lot, you’ll never be able to write successfully – and the list comprises fiction books he has read and recommends.

 

If you take nothing else from this book, you will get an idea of the dedication and hard work it took King to get where he is today, and you’ll have a much better understanding of what life as a successful writer is like and how to get there. I completely understand why this is one of the books that is constantly recommended to writers and would-be writers.

 

Writing books – The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

38 most common mistakesThe 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) by Jack M. Bickham is a slim but useful volume. It covers a wide variety of topics, each in a fair depth – most chapters are two or three pages long, explaining the nature of each mistake and how to avoid it.

 

Topics start with Don’t make excuses – suggestions to avoid the procrastination that all writers seem to suffer from to a greater or lesser degree. They continue with topics such as Don’t expect miracles, Don’t lecture your reader, Don’t ignore scene structure, Don’t ever stop observing and making notes, Don’t ignore professional advice, Don’t forget sense impressions, and finishes with Don’t just sit there.

 

The advice is sensible and thought-provoking, with probably more on general plotting and structure principles or the process itself than on specific writing issues. While this book is unlikely to directly influence your writing, it could help your attitudes and beliefs about your work.

 

The book is available in kindle or paperback, and the kindle version is available on kindle unlimited. There are more thorough books out there, but this does work as an interesting, relevant read as a present for a new writer, or as a general motivational book. Generally, though, there shouldn’t be anything in here that comes as a big surprise to any regular writer.

 

 

Writing books – The Power of Point of View

power of point of viewPoint of view is one issue that many writers struggle with. One of the first questions you face is the question of which POV would suit your story best, and then there’s ensuring your POV is consistent throughout.

 

The Power of Point of View, by Alicia Rasley, looks at the topic in depth. Part one, the basics, looks at the different options and how they affect the story. Examples are given that demonstrate the difference POV can make both in the telling of the story and the emotional impact.

 

Part two, building your story, looks in more detail at each POV. The advantages and disadvantages of each technique are looked at in detail, so that you can make your choice wisely, and the technical aspects are looked at. As well as first and second person, third person is divided into impersonal, personal (single) and personal (multiple). The dangers of headhopping and how to avoid it are covered.

 

Part three, the master class, looks at individualising POV, levels of POV and creating alternative and unusual voices.

 

Each topic is explored in depth, with relevant examples explained, Further reading is suggested. There is enough technical information to be sure that you can tackle POV more confidently in your own projects.

 

If POV is a topic you struggle with, then you will find this book helpful. It might be a little much for a very new writer, but the content is accessible to most who have any experience on the topic and there is enough depth for more experienced writers too. The book is more expensive than the smaller guides but I’ve found there’s plenty of material in there to justify the cost, and the paperback is a useful addition to my bookshelf.

 

 

Writing books – Ready, Set, Novel

ready set novelWith Nanowrimo fast approaching, there are many writers out there preparing to spend the month of November writing a first draft of a novel. Ready, Set, Novel! is written by the organisers of Nanowrimo, Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant and Tavia Stewart-Streit, and promises to help you plan and plot your upcoming masterpiece.

 

While this book is more of a workbook than a reading book, the structure that it offers is very helpful if you’re new to planning for a full novel. From the very first steps of storming your brain, through characters and plot, to exploring setting and heading into the blank page, this book contains plenty of ideas and useful information to help you pass that tense month of October in a positive way and hit November ready to go.

 

Pages include family tree diagrams ready to fill in, places to freewrite about what you want to achieve, spaces for timelines, pages to consider the before and after of your main characters, suggestions for scenes, and a space to write out your schedule and deadlines.

 

If you’re used to planning for a novel and you already have a good idea of what to write, then this book would probably be too much for you, and you would struggle to fit your ideas into the areas and structure provided, but if you’re coming to nano for the first time, or are nervous about what to write or how to plan, then this book would be an ideal way to spend the time between now and November, when the fun really starts. And, of course, it can be used at any time of year, not just planning for National Novel Writing Month.

 

Writing books – Writing Faster FTW

2015-09-30 07.39.45Writing Faster FTW is written by L.A. Witt and Lauren Gallagher. FTW means For The Win, for those who haven’t come across it before. This is a short book, available only in ebook format, and offers to give you ways to remove barriers and make your writing process more effective and productive. It’s fairly cheap, current price £1.26, and my copy was obtained when they ran a free promotion.

 

I’ve read a few other books on writing faster or more productively, and while this one has lots of good advice, I don’t feel that it covers as much as I would like in terms of maintaining quality and maximising small pockets of time.

 

What it does cover:

  • Not all writing advice is applicable to all writers; if it works for you, follow it.
  • It is perfectly possible to write fast and efficiently.
  • You need to step away from distractions and overcome self-doubt.

It also gives practical advice on outlining, writing out of sequence, writing with a co-author and researching efficiently, as well as avoiding burnout. These tips are likely to lead to increased productivity, but the rest is more or less common sense.

 

In the end, this book seems to be full of practical advice that any writer who is serious about their craft needs to take on board but in the main should already be aware of. Writing means writing, not writing about writing, not tweeting about writing, not complaining about how hard it is to write, not watching TV while complaining there’s no time to write. Dare I add to this list: not reading books about how to write more. There is a place for such books, of course, but the single best thing you can do to improve your writing productivity is to write.

 

Writing books – The Story Grid

2015-09-23 10.37.53The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne is subtitled What Good Editors Know. This is another book that looks in detail at story structure, but from a different angle than the Blueprint your Bestseller that I looked at previously.

 

Coyne looks at two ways of analysing a book: the Foolscap Global Story Grid breaks a book down into its essential components, as a check that the basic structure is sound and clear, while the Story Grid Spreadsheet looks at each scene in more detail, recording the change in mood, turning point, length of scene, POV and other aspects. Both these sections take Silence of the Lambs as a reference point, analysing it in depth and applying the methods to the text.  I found this a little irritating, as it has been many years since I read the book and I’m not sure I ever saw the movie, so my lack of familiarity with the sample text made these parts a little harder to follow.

 

However, what I did find very useful with this book is the in-depth look at genre, both in the sense of genre fiction and in the sense that every book falls into a specific category of book. Each genre has its own rules and conventions, and these are laid out for some genres at least in great detail. This came to mind recently when I read a thriller that did not follow those conventions, and I did indeed find that it fell flat because of this.

 

Story arcs are also looked at in depth, with the arch-plot, the mini-plot and the anti-plot discussed in detail, as well as the interplay of external and internal content genres.

 

Most or all of the material is available online, at www.thestorygrid.com, and I would suggest that before considering buying the book you take a good look at the website and the resources there. You can see a summary of the techniques used on the resources page. The paperback book is rather expensive, at £25, while the kindle book at just under £5 is better value, but I found it a struggle to view some of the images, especially on a kindle device, which doesn’t have the same facility as an iPad to zoom in on images. However, it is useful to have the text all in one place for easy access.

 

There is a lot of useful material in this book, and it is well worth looking through. It emphasises the necessity of knowing the rules in order to break them deliberately if you feel appropriate, rather than ploughing on without understanding them in the first place, and the fact that understanding your genre is essential to producing a strong book. The grid is a good way of checking that every part of your story is strong, while the foolscap method is a good check that the overall arc is clear. Both techniques together will tighten up your writing and reduce flabbiness that fails to drive the story forward. This is not a book for the writer just starting out, but if you’re nearing the point of thinking about seeking publication in some way then this would be very useful. It would also be useful for any beta reader to bear in mind, although there is always the fear that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I would hate to see anyone applying these rules rigidly without understanding why they exist or when they may be broken (a bit like the rules of writing itself, in fact!).

 

Writing books – The Emotion Thesaurus and others

2015-09-16 09.40.42The Emotion Thesaurus is one of a collection of books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, the others being The Positive Trait Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and Emotion Amplifiers. The first three are available in paperback or kindle versions; the last is a free, small kindle-only volume, and works as a good introduction to the others.

 

The Emotion Thesaurus contains 75 emotion entries, ranging from adoration through nostalgia to worry. Each entry includes a definition (for example, Terror: a state of extreme fear), a long list of physical signals (ranging from images like flaring nostrils to behaviours like spinning around, trying to spot any and all danger), internal sensations (weak legs), mental responses (risk taking), cues of acute or long-term terror (insomnia, hallucinations), indications of how that emotion may escalate (paranoia, rage), cues of that emotion being suppressed and writer’s tips. Each of the entries offers a couple of pages of words and phrases. In the kindle version, there is a handy link back to the table of contents, as this is not the sort of book to be read linearly.

 

The book also contains general advice on writing emotions, and a guide to using the contents of the thesaurus.

 

The Positive Trait Thesaurus and the Negative Trait Thesaurus are on similar lines. A guide at the front of the book gives guidance on creating believable, rounded characters. Then the main thesaurus lists different attributes, A definition is included, a guide to similar flaws/attributes, possible causes, associated behaviours and attitudes, associated thoughts, associated emotions, positive aspects, negative aspects, examples from film, overcoming this trait as a major flaw, and traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict. There is a wide range of traits included, with several under each letter of the alphabet. Smallest category is XYZ, containing only Zealousy, while several letters contain more than twenty entries.

 

The free Emotion Amplifiers book is much briefer, but covers topics including addiction, attraction, boredom, hunger, illness, pain and stress, plus a sample of the other books in the series.

 

These books are ideal for any writer who is seeking to widen the range of emotional description, covering multiple suggestions for describing just about any characteristic or emotional state you could think of. The Positive Traits and Negative Traits book would also be invaluable in the creation of rounded characters, whether you want to create a flawed hero or a well-rounded bad guy. While I found the paperback versions a little expensive, there’s no doubt that the physical book would be useful. However, the link to the index at the end of each chapter makes the kindle version perfectly valid as an alternative.

 

 

 

Writing books – Thanks, but this isn’t for us

2015-09-08 14.46.48While the previous writing-related books I’ve reviewed have been suitable for any active writer, this one isn’t for the faint-hearted! I would definitely suggest that Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell, subtitled A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected, is aimed at the more confident, polished writer who is nearing the point of either seeking an agent or publisher or getting ready to hit the self-publish button.

 

Written by a developmental editor who claims to have been called the Angel of Death by a critique group she ran, this book goes through all the common problems she sees in manuscripts. For each category she looks at, such as first impressions, she gives a detailed explanation of that aspect, why it is important and what it needs to include. She breaks down the categories of what she sees as the dealbreakers (dud prologues, trying too hard, not enough happening, too much happening), all with detailed explanations of how and why they are a problem, and then gives options for improving that aspect (dialogue, anecdote, suspense, theme, setting). Examples are given from published works and from novels she’s come across that have problems (heavily disguised so as not to embarrass anyone!). Each chapter concludes with exercises and tips for your own work, and a list of further resources.

 

The fourteen chapters include first impressions, plot, style and language, conflict, avoiding dialogue disasters, characters and writing memoirs. The final chapter is entitled Driving an Editor Crazy: Goofs, Gaffes and Howlers That Sink a Manuscript (dippy and oddball names, creepy sex scenes, fact checker breakdown, head hopping, inconsistent voice…).

 

There is also an epilogue that covers living the writer’s life, with tips and advice on how to make writing more than just a hobby. The first section, entitled Toughen Up, maybe should have been at the front! The book concludes with a glossary of relevant words – “The lingo of writing; The lingo of publishing” – which covers relevant words or phrases, such as crucible, inciting action, subtext, earn out, imprint, remaindered; all the vocabulary that the author wants to be able to use intelligently in discussions about their craft – or rather about their business, because this really is the attitude that the author is expecting from her readers.

 

There is a lot of valuable material in here, to the extent that I feel it would be off-putting to the writer who is relatively new to the craft. The author really does not pull her punches, and is almost intimidating in her fervour (“If I sound like a badass on these pages, keep in mind that I’m a pussycat compared to the suits in the publishing world. You know, the folks who send out the rejection letters.”). However, close reading and analysis would probably help any writer on the cusp of publishing standard to figure out any remaining problems and tidy things up.

 

If you’re putting your first novel together, then there are plenty of other books out there to hold your hand and guide you gently. If you’re submitting and not getting the results you want, or are about to take that first step of sending your work out to find a publisher, then this book would be a very useful addition to your library. If you’re self-publishing, then the responsibility to make sure your work is of publishable standard rests on your shoulders.

 

The interior of the book is clearly laid out, with clear headings and subheadings. Checklists are included for your own work. The writing style is clear and to the point. I love the simple but effective cover design on the paperback, and at just under 350 pages it’s a fair-sized book. The kindle version isn’t much cheaper than the paperback, and in this case, as in most writing books, I’d definitely recommend getting the paperback version.