Category Archives: writing

Review: Damn Fine Story

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful NarrativeDamn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t able to attend the DFW Con writing convention this year, where Chuck was the keynote speaker, but I did get to read this book, so I still feel like I got to have a good long conversation with him.

The book is both light-hearted and zippy and meaty and something you’ll ponder. It took me a long time to get through because I kept ruminating. Which is the point! Thank god this was a different kind of writing book! There is no torture over adverbs or controversially short memory devices; Chuck leaves all that to King and the plethora of his imitators. Instead, this book is about the overall shape of a story. That’s a mushy, hard-to-define topic, which Chuck handles with movie story examples, quick jokes, and great illustrative metaphors.

You’ll have something to think about, and you’ll damn well like it, young man!

(Seriously though, I just want to watch TV with Chuck. He has excellent nerd taste.)

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Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It has been years since I have been so utterly challenged by a book. Junot Diaz breaks almost every conventional rule of literature—the story is nonlinear; characters are not major historical players despite being set in a historical moment of great change; mixes vulgarities with nerdy references in a way guaranteed to exclude most highbrow readers; jumps around in narration; makes frequent reference to a book most people probably hasn’t read, even if they should (In the Time of the Butterflies); avoids most dialogue punctuation—and yet transcends most books. Read this book to have your mind blown in the best possible way.

I had four years of Spanish in high school and it wasn’t enough, because they don’t teach words like “toto,” “puta,” and “culo” in high school (“pussy,” “whore,” and “ass.” You’ll need them in this book)—though Diaz presents a compelling reason to include them in the next lesson. I’ve never made such frequent use of Google translate as I did with this book, and many times there were words even there that couldn’t be looked up, that only brought up annotations for this very book.

But even if you don’t stop to look up all the words you don’t know, Diaz beautifully and elegantly communicates the feeling of being each character, of dealing with their struggles and their particular viewpoint. It’s rare that you can see inside a whole family in this way, each against each other and yet tied together as one unit, each struggling with their own challenges yet determined to be a united front against the world.

The title of this book and the blurb makes it seem like this is the story of one character—Oscar “Wao”—but that’s misleading. I’m not even sure, except for the end, that Oscar can be said to be the main character. No, this is a story about a family, individually and together, and about the legacy of immigration–both blessing and curse–that has impacted them all. It is a powerful and moving tale–even if it does stretch the limits of your translator.

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Habits of Highly Successful NaNo-ers

I’m way behind on real life, so you get this lovely infographic.

*Note: Their data is at least a little off—I got three hours of writing in on Thanksgiving!

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Almost There–YOU CAN DO IT!

Yeah, go flip some tires and stand precariously on the edge of a building! Sweat a lot or…

Wait, no, that’s not right. Oh yeah, FINISH THAT NOVEL! You’re so close, you can do it! Or maybe you’re not close, but that’s no reason to give up on yourself!

Because finishing something, even if it’s not everything, is sometimes enough. DO IT. Sit down, turn off the internet, and cross that finish line!

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November 26, 2015 · 9:30 am

Happy Thanksgiving: Get Stuffed!

Be thankful for your many blessings this year, enjoy time with family and friends, stuff your face with food… and then get back to writing, you loons, NaNoWriMo is almost over! Take a plate of that turkey and lock yourself in a bedroom until you finish your novel! Go go go!

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November 24, 2015 · 9:20 am

“What Do You Write?”, or The Genre Prison

I just recently read one of those articles about how the “new wave” of self-publishers “must” act, and it left me rolling my eyes. It said, instead of just writing, editing, and publishing something, and then working on a social media platform/blog, you should do it the other way around: blog first, become popular (literally, that was the whole step–oh, ok!), hope you still have time for the book you originally wanted to write.

I’ve seen that advice before, but today it just made me eyeroll particularly hard (because of course it’s as easy as “get popular.” Gag me). The advice was further to pick what you were going to write about–presumably the same thing that is your future book topic–and then write extensively on that narrow subject.

Now, don’t get me wrong, that totally works for some people. I met a woman at a conference who started her blog about kids’ photography, and it led to a book deal and stuff. Great. But guess what? She didn’t start the blog so she could eventually write a book; she started the blog because she wanted to be a blogger.

Anyway, back to the “write about one topic a lot” thing: most broadly, that means writing about a specific genre. But I think that’s locking yourself into a prison for no good reason: so your first book ends up being a steampunk romance, great, but what if you want to do a sci-fi horror for the second one? Do you have to spin off a totally different blog? Start all over again? Insanity!

Besides, sometimes the genre is stupidly hard to define. That’s one of the biggest problems with Undead Rising. What genre is it? It’s got zombies, so that’s sometimes horror, even though it’s maybe PG-13 level scary. Zombies are also supernatural, so it kinda fits in that arena. But it’s also funny, so does that make it humor? Except it turns out, weirdly, that most humor books are nonfiction, so that isn’t exactly a good fit. It’s a gamebook, which is awesome, except it’s a genre completely dominated by children’s books from the 1970s and that’s not exactly a section most people are familiar with… so what, exactly, would my one-genre blog be about?

I guarantee you if I had to talk exclusively about zombies, this blog would have died a long time ago.

The conventional publishing wisdom is contradictory here, too. Officially, you pick a genre and you just write in that genre until your hands fall off. It used to be if you wanted to write in a different genre, your publisher would frown on that and your new stuff wouldn’t be published; you were only “known” in one arena. Except… if you got famous, then it was back to whatever you wanted, apparently. All my favorite authors right now may be best known for a certain thing, but they cross genres at will, following whatever they are interested in: Neil Gaiman (comics, children’s books, YA, adult novels); Brad Meltzer (historical fiction, superhero comics, children’s picture books); Margaret Atwood (dystopian fiction that she likes to call literary fiction, short stories, fantasy); and Jim Butcher (urban fantasy, role playing games, comic books, steampunk).

So I say….write what you want. Following your passion is far more interesting and more likely to keep you motivated. Who cares what the box is supposed to be? Just go for it. Make the box fit you, not the other way around.

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