There is a writing book for every problem.
When people find out that I review how-to books for writers, they often ask me, “What’s your favorite?” I always sweat and stammer and give a vague answer, because how can I choose just one?
I have over 200 how-to books on my shelf, and those are just the keepers. My favorites are the practical ones. Airy theory is nice, but I prefer the books that get right into the trenches with me, through concrete examples and positive action steps.
Even though I can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all book, I’m good at recommending specific books for specific problems. So here are ten books to take with you on your novel writing journey. Whether you’re looking for help with character, plot, or just getting your butt in the chair, these are my top ten problem-solvers.
For help with plot, read Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This book breaks down popular novels to show you exactly how they were put together. Understanding story structure is the fastest way for a writer to “level up” her craft.
For help with characters, read Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. This book gives authors tools to create three-dimensional characters. All the examples are positive ones, focusing on what works, rather than what does not.
For help with emotion, read Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict by Cheryl St. John. This is the book to read after you’ve mastered plot and character, because the deeper you can make your readers feel things, the more they will connect with your novel.
For help with dialogue, read Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall. This is a book I’ve wanted for years. There are dozens of very bad books about dialogue on the shelf. Ignore them. This is the one you need.
To learn about stakes, read Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa. It will give you tools you to make your stories as gripping as possible. There’s an art to upping the stakes, and this book will show you how.
For help with outlines, read Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. It’s truly the outline book for everyone, whether you’re a meticulous plotter or a fly-by-your-seat pantser. This book will show you how to use an outline and why you should.
To learn good habits, read Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox. It’s guaranteed to help you get your butt into the writing chair every day. The books listed above are great for story craft, but it’s the daily grind that will make a real writer out of you.
To learn time management, read Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy. It’s the book you need when just getting to the writing desk is a struggle. This book will help you beat procrastination once and for all.
To push yourself, read Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell. It’s inspirational, but it includes solid instruction along with its cheerleading. This book is about never-ending self-improvement, stressing the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career.
And for a dose of wisdom, read Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block. For so many reasons, this book will always be special to me. It’s a practically a complete writing course in one volume and is so full of good advice it’s like having a paperback-sized mentor you can consult at any time.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She gives back to the writing community by reviewing how-to books on the Writing Slices blog.
Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.
The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?
Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.
If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.
If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.
On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.
So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.
There’s a right way and a wrong way.
Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.
After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby. Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.
It never happened.
A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.
He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.
The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.
It never happened.
Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”
Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.
And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.
Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.
Now let’s hope they clue in others.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who works on a macbook with a newly installed hard drive.
It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.
I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.
Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.
But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.
The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.
I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.
But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.
She cut those pages without a second glance.
It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.
Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.
It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.
That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.
And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.
If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who works with all kinds of writers, especially brave ones.
Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.
On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.
Here are my five favorites.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.
Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.
Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.
I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.
Some non-writing things that help me write better
Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.
Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.
The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.
I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.
You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.
Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.
Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.
Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.
A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.
Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.
Until I got Gunnar Glasses.
They look ridiculous. I don’t care.
The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.
I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.
One helps me write faster.
One helps me edit longer.
And one makes me happier while I do it.
Who wouldn’t want that?
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.
You. Yes, you. You’re doing just fine.
Have you seen this quote? It shows up around social media a lot.
It’s supposed to be funny…I think? I don’t find it so. O’Connor goes on to say that many a bestseller would have been prevented by a good teacher. Because how dare some people think they can write? In O’Connor’s world, not even a college degree is enough to prevent bad writing.
I find this attitude infuriating. I know there are more bad writers than good ones. I also know that some people think they are good writers when they are not. Or more accurately, they aren’t good writers yet.
That’s what bothers me most about the idea of “stifling writers.” It feeds into the myth of innate talent, as if pro writers never had to learn their craft but were born knowing how to write flawless first drafts.
Some people think the way to help new writers is to cut them down—otherwise known as “telling them the truth.” But writing well is hard work and the publishing process is soul-sucking. Why add to that misery?
I teach a class. I help new writers. When I read their sample pages, I tell them they are doing just fine. I tell them to to keep writing. Because you know what? That is the truth. The most important thing a beginning writer can do is write more. It’s the only way to get better.
I’m not patronizing or condescending. I give solid advice in addition to praise. I recommend books that can help with specific problems. And when it comes to publishing questions, I tell it like it is, with no sugar-coating.
But I don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone’s manuscript. Leaving my own fingerprints all over someone else’s pages won’t help them. It will only make them believe they can’t do it themselves. But what will help them is knowing that someone sees their potential, thinks they are on the right track, and is rooting for them.
That’s what other writers did for me. And that’s what I will always, always do for other writers.
And there’s no way anyone can stifle that.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is wildly enthusiastic about brand-new writers.
Scientist, educator, philosopher, writer. Carl Sagan’s life and work continue to inspire us.
Having a hard day? Finding it difficult to get words on the page? Here are five quotes from Carl Sagan that will brighten any writer’s day.
Sitting in a room and making stuff up? It’s your job. Your imagination is taking you places!
…and the reality is, you’ve got to get some chapters written.
I love how Carl lapses into second-person here. As if maybe he, himself, isn’t quite human? But he’s captured the essential nature of humans: we need to live together, and we need the stories that teach us how.
You have an obligation to future generations. Start working that magic!
So let’s go discover it in a book.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is passionate about helping new writers.
Sometimes “they” is just one person.
Language is always changing, and proper grammar is nothing more than consensus. What is considered incorrect today will probably be tomorrow’s norm—and just as vigorously defended and argued about.
Consider the pronoun “thou,” which used to be the second person singular. By about 1700, it was gone, as everyone was using “you” for both singular and plural. The same thing is happening with they.
While English teachers and the grammar police freak out, the rest of us are happily using they to mean just one person. Here are six reasons that’s okay.
1. The singular they has been used for a long, long time. Since the middle ages, in fact. Chaucer used the singular they. Shakespeare used the singular they. Austen used the singular they. If they can do it, you can do it.
2. In the singular third person, English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. “He or she” is not all-inclusive. Some people are neither he nor she. Besides, you’re not talking about an either/or situation. You’re not choosing from many possibilities, you’re talking about a single person. Some academics use “one” here, and I suppose one could do that, if one doesn’t mind sounding like a pretentious ninny.
3. Everyone is already doing it, including you. Don’t believe me? How would you finish this sentence? “If someone wins the lottery…” I bet you started the next clause with “they should…” You’ve also said something like this: “Someone left their cell phone behind. I hope they come back for it.” We do this all the time, especially when words like someone, everybody and anyone are involved.
4. Authorities say it’s correct. The singular they was chosen by the American Dialect Society as their 2015 word of the year. Bill Walsh, the Washington Post editor in charge of the style guide also says the singular they “is the only sensible solution.” The Chicago Manual of Style, The Guardian, The Merriam-Webster dictionary and many other publications also say the singular they is correct.
5. The pronoun does not have to agree with the number of its noun. Although “they” is most often plural, it does not have to be. Consider the following sentence: If our team plays well in the semi-finals, chances are they will play well in the finals, too. We see that the noun “team” is singular, by the use of the verb “plays.” But in the second clause, we use the word “they” to refer to the singular “team.” Or how about this sentence? My family stops by often and they always forget to bring beer. “Family” is singular, yet referred to as “they.”
6. “He” isn’t gender-neutral. Do you insist that “he,” “him,” and “his” includes men and women and non-binary people? Then you won’t mind a sentence like this: I can’t remember: was it your brother or your sister who had his graduation party last week? Or how about this one? Each student should wear his nicest suit or his prettiest dress to the dance. Those sentences are crying out for a singular they. Even worse, when the masculine form of a word is considered the generic, the feminine form usually takes on sexual or derogatory tones. Consider “master” and “mistress,” or “bachelor” and “spinster.”
You can stubbornly plow on, using he or one when the word you really want is the singular they. Eventually you’ll get tired of people rolling their eyes at you and you’ll remember that grammar rules are descriptive, not prescriptive.
In the meantime, don’t you dare tell anyone who is using they as a third-person singular pronoun that they are wrong. Because they are not.
What if grown-ups got report cards, too? This is how I imagine mine.
Alex reads a variety of genres, not at all influenced by what the other students are reading. This year, she enjoyed many, many books including The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Immortal Clay by Michael W. Lucas, and Keller’s Fedora by Lawrence Block.
Social Studies: B
Alex is introverted, so this is her hardest subject, and yet, she succeeded in making new friends at science fiction conventions. She hopes to spend more time with her close friends this summer, because barbecue season is short, and friendship is important.
Alex’s science experiments are all food-related, and while she attempted some new ones, she mostly kept repeating the same old experiments. The spaghetti experiment and the chicken soup experiment always have the same results. There is no need to prove them again.
Alex did not attempt any higher math this year. She did not use anything beyond addition and subtraction to balance her checkbook. And despite her insistence, I cannot give her a geometry credit for loading the dishwasher.
Creative Writing: A
Alex accomplished all her writing goals for the year. Her blogs are always updated on schedule and she’s working on two super-secret projects. We’re all looking forward to seeing what those are.
Alex colors beautifully, but she only wants to color ornate swear words.
Alex prefers to read or do errands during naptime, even when she is cranky and snapping at people and walking into walls. Some better self-care routines would benefit her, and they would really benefit those around her.
Paying Attention: A+
Alex finds everything fascinating, especially her fellow students. She is curious about history, travel, gender studies, traditions, culture, unusual fashion, and how people express themselves in word and picture and song. She wants to know how people do things, why people do things, and what benefits they get from doing them. Alex watches, she listens, and she takes notes.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She loves being a student of life.