The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination, Jason Rekulak

Review by J. Kristin Dreyer

The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination
by Jason Rekulak
Running Press
March, 2001
672 pages

8 AM — You sit down in front of your computer, eager to get to work on The Great American Novel (or even The Decent American Novel, for that matter). You open up a new document on your computer.

11 AM — Two loads of laundry, one talk show, and one phone conversation with your best friend later, your document is still blank. You know the ideas are up there somewhere, but you’re not quite sure how to pull them out through your fingers and onto the screen.

Cover of Jason Rekulak's The Writers_block

Sometimes, we all need a little push in the right direction. That’s what The Writer’s Block is for — this amusingly-cube-shaped book is full of creative nudges. Just open it up to a random page, and you’ll find the inspiration you need. Whether you open to a Spark Word (like “marathon” or “vanity”), a motivational thought about writing, or a writing prompt, your keyboard will be back in business in a matter of minutes.

The Writer’s Block is a necessity for any writer’s bookshelf. Or — better yet — keep it on your desk in case of emergencies. It’s like the bag of candy you keep hidden in your desk drawer — just what you need to keep yourself going.

Kristin Dreyer Kramer is a refugee from the Real World (no, not the TV show). he escaped (barely!) from advertising agency life and is now a freelance writer (starving artist). You can find her at KristinDreyerKramer.com.

Review: The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything by Magdalena Ball

Review by Betty Winslow
Let me say right off the bat that I prefer my writing books in hardcopy, so that I can red them in bed, in the car, or in the bathtub (not a good place for an e-reader). However, Magdalena Ball’s e-book, The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, made sitting in front of my computer worth the crick in my neck I ended up with.

I’ve been doing book reviews for about five years now, and I more or less fell into it one day, when (at my second job as school librarian) I read a professional librarian review magazine, thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I can do this, too!” and sent in my first review. A bit to my surprise, the editor liked my work, and I’ve been doing reviews for her ever since.

Cover of Magdalena Ball’s The Art Of AssessmentMore recently, I’ve sent a few clips from that magazine to other publications and have made a place for my work at several other magazines (some of which even pay!). Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about doing reviews, but I had to do it pretty much on my own, since no matter where I looked, I couldn’t seem to find a book about this field. When someone in one of the on-line writer’s groups I belong to mentioned Maggie’s book, I sent off for it right away. Now, after reading it, I only have one thing to say– Maggie, where were you five years ago?

If reviewing interests you, don’t mess around like I did; buy this book and read it cover to cover (uh . . . screen to screen? Whatever. . .). Maggie not only tells it like it is, in chapters like “How to Write Reviews” and “How To Review Anything” (in which she discusses books, concerts, CDs, and other products you might not have thought about reviewing), she includes plenty of useful resources, too. Some of them may not be useful to you unless you’re also Australian, as she is, but all in all this is one of most valuable niche marketing books I’ve read in a long time.

[Editors’ note: Since Betty published this article, Magdalena Ball has republished The Art of Assessment; it is now available as both a printed book and an ebook.]

Review: You Can Market Your Book: All the Tools You Need to Sell Your Published Book

Review by Betty Winslow

You Can Market Your Book: All the Tools You Need to Sell Your Published Book
By Carmen Leal
ACW Press
2003
250 pages
Amazon.com price: $10.50

If there were an election for the position of Queen of Book Promotion, Carmen Leal would win it, hands down. Her latest book, You Can Market Your Book: All the Tools You Need to Sell Your Published Book, is chock full of ideas she and others have used to generate a buzz about their books, self-published or published through a royalty publisher. “Through a royalty publisher?” you ask? Yep. Even going that route doesn’t mean you can sit back on your laurels and let the publishing house do all the work—unless you don’t care if your book sells or not. You do, don’t you? Ms. Leal says, “Make sure that you understand the 80/20 rule: Writing takes only 20 percent of your effort, marketing and promotion takes up the other 80 percent.”

You Can Market Your Book will show you many ways to make good use of the 80 percent. With it in hand, you can pull off all kinds of marketing: press kits, book signings, on-camera interviews, giveaways, public speaking, and more. The book is divided into four sections, Project and Site Preparation, Choosing the Right Tools and Materials, Finding the Right Subcontractors, and Executing Your Plan, and it has a detailed table of contents, making it easy to find the section you want to concentrate on next.

She doesn’t use only her own ideas, either. She also presents ideas that have been used by other successful authors, as well as articles on various promotion topics by over a dozen other professionals. No matter how much you know about promoting a book, I’d be surprised if you weren’t able to learn at least a few new angles by the end of the book. One interesting side note: Be sure to notice how she uses quotations (a particular passion of hers) and dialogue from the movie Lilies of the Field to illustrate various points.

To add to the book’s value, Ms. Leal has included at the end of each chapter a list of authors and resources featured in that particular section, to make finding them again easier. She also offers the URL to a companion web site that features every link in the book and a tip archive as well as several worksheets and forms that can be printed out for use by her readers. In the very back of the book is a list of recommended books that Leal considers to be valuable. (I already own or have read several of them and I’ll be investigating the rest.)

If you plan on writing a book and you want it to sell, You Can Market Your Book should be #1 on your shopping list.

Betty Winslow is the author of The Lady and the Lawman.

Book Review: 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity

52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity.
By Jeffrey Yamaguchi
Perigee
2005
192 pp.
Nonfiction

Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews

There’s something about the thrill of creativity—seeing something through from idea to execution. The feeling of purpose that comes from having a project to work on, that you’ve got something worthwhile to spend your time and energy on, beyond the normal nine-to-five and day to day routine. In that vein, Jeffrey Yamaguchi’s 52 Projects is packed with enough ideas and inspiration to last a long long time.

The genesis of the book began with Yamaguchi’s own quest to compile 52 projects that he either completed or intended to complete on his website, 52projects.com, natch. The intense personal nature of his readers’ feedback inspired whatsyourproject.com, and later this book, 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity.

Opening with the author’s thoughts and commentary on the importance and purpose of projects in his life, and by extension, what benefits working on a project can bring to your life, the majority of the book is taken up by his suggested projects. These aren’t highly technical plans, with lists of necessary tools and materials— they’re surprisingly low-tech; the most you’ll probably need is to dust off the camera, tape recorder, or video camera. Many of these projects are appropriate for groups, families, or gift-giving ideas. With a warm and easy-going tone, it’s clear that Yamaguchi has fun with his projects, and he wants you to have fun, too.

A couple of my favorites include making a key lime pie, inviting friends over, and photographing everyone enjoying it. Then take the photos, a few limes, and your pie recipe, box it all up and mail it to a friend. If your friends aren’t into pie, try the “Shotgun a Beer” one— buy a 12-pack of the stuff you used to drink in college and mail a can to all your old college friends, with instructions to drink it on the same day at the same time. (Unfortunately—or fortunately?—I think most of my friends probably fall into the pie-eating category more than the beer-drinking category.)

Oftentimes, Yamaguchi’s projects are annotated with a brief recollection of his own experience with this project. There are also ample suggestions for variations on many projects, plus more ideas scattered throughout the margins of the book. With additional advice on projects as gifts, and the importance of writing things down, plus how to make time for doing projects, and a list of 52 resources for inspiration, Yamaguchi’s book is a well-rounded and useful tool for people who are creative types, or who want to be. What’s especially nice is that with far-flung family and friends so common, many of these projects that involve mailing packages, photos, or letters to others are a fun and memorable way to bridge that gap.

There’s a lot of inspiration here—for creative people in general, and writers in particular. One of Yamaguchi’s suggestions, to write a letter, leave it unsigned and place it in the leaves of a library book stirred my imagination and spawned a short story. Many of the projects make excellent writing prompts: Write a one-minute autobiography; List the years you’ve been alive and write down a memory from each year.

The easy-to-browse organization of the book makes every project accessible, and wide margins leave lots of room for scribbling your own notes and ideas. The slim, pocket-sized paperback has certainly earned a place on my desk, whether for rainy day activities for the kids or a solution to writer’s block.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years’ experience as a readers’ advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal, The Imperfect Parent, and Absolute Write. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine. You can find her at www.amyba.com.

Book Review: An Agent’s Point of View By Sheri Williams

Reviewed by Amy Brozio-Andrews

In her new book An Agent’s Point of View, Sheri Williams shares her insight and advice with writers who are either looking for an agent, or seeking a positive working relationship with their agent. In a short 73 pages, Williams gives tips and examples on writing queries and book proposals. She gives us a peek at real emails and letters she’s received at an agent at Williams Agency, and points out what each of these writers did right and wrong.

An Agent’s Point of View also includes a chapter on etiquette (otherwise known as how to prevent your letter or proposal from immediately being sent to the circular file) as well a comprehensive look at what editors expect of writers, and what writers can expect from their editors, addressing common concerns and problems on both sides of the editor/writer relationship. Williams’ book also offers a glossary of terms that will help new writers find their footing before sending their work to editors, as well as a list of helpful online resources including writing websites, grammar help and market information for poets, novelists, screenwriters and more.

Williams writing style is straightforward yet friendly. Readers will feel like they’re really getting an behind-the-scenes look at the world of editors — what they like to see in queries and proposals, how they like editors to approach them, and what happens after the editor agrees to represent the writer. She pulls no punches, and makes it clear exactly what works for editors, and what could cause them to pass over a query or proposal without a second glance.

The book is especially helpful to aspiring writers because she includes a complete query and book proposal for readers to use as examples in developing their own. Williams lays out all the parts of each piece, and explains all the components of a successful writer’s pitch. With a copy of An Agent’s Point of View, it’s like having your own personal agent looking over your shoulder, pointing out all the things you’re doing right (and wrong).

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years’ experience as a readers’ advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal and The Imperfect Parent. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine.

Writing Mysteries, 2nd Ed. A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America

Cover of Writing Mysteries

Review by Ellen Zuckerman

Writing Mysteries 2nd Ed.
Sue Grafton, Ed. with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
Writer’s Digest Books
April, 2002

“Writing a novel is a long distance run of the imagination…Writers need all the help they can get, wherever they can get it . . . ” (George C. Chesbro, p. 91)

So you want to write a mystery? There are a few things you’ll need for your journey; among them a healthy dose of curiosity and imagination, but nothing so important and helpful as a well-worn copy of Writing Mysteries (2nd Ed.), written by the Mystery Writers of America. Everything you’ll need is here, organized into just under 300 pages of collective wisdom, from well-known and not-so-well-known mystery authors.

The handbook is divided into three parts: Preparation, The Process, and Specialties. Part I includes chapters on “The Rules and How to Bend Them,” how and where writers get their ideas, the pros and cons of writing with a partner, and several chapters on research and background, all exploring different facets of these subjects.

Part II, The Process, dives right in to beginnings, middles, and endings, with specific sections focusing in-depth on characterization, creating a series character, using point of view, and developing one’s personal writing style. Discussions on dialogue, pacing, and “clues, red herrings, and other plot devices” lead into the beginning of the end–thoughts and recommendations on plot, revision, agents, and markets.

Part III, Specialties, contains separate and thorough chapters each detailing a particular type of mystery writing — writing short stories, for younger audiences, true crime, e-book mysteries, and even a list of additional recommended reading and references.

So there you have it — everything you’ll need to know to write a mystery — from the inkling of your first clue to the portrayal of the hero/sleuth your audiences will clamor to read about again and again. The best of the best are here — Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky, Sara Paretsky, Joan Lowery Nixon, Lawrence Block, and a host of other unique voices to guide the beginning mystery writer on the journey from idea to publication. With humor and honesty, a varied assortment of very different writers share their thoughts and even some of their “trade secrets” in this excellent writer’s resource. Every aspiring mystery writer should have a copy of Writing Mysteries within arm’s reach.

Ellen Zuckerman is a writer and former special education teacher. Her recent writing credits include book reviews for FictionAddiction.NET and AbsoluteWrite.com. She enjoys writing about literature, education, disability advocacy and health issues and is available for various writing projects. You can find her on Twitter as @Runnergrrlie

Review: The Well-Fed Writer: Back for Seconds by Peter Bowerman

Peter Bowerman. The Well-Fed Writer: Back for Seconds.

Fanove Publishing, 2004.

For any writer interested in tailoring her freelance work to business clients, Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer: Back for Seconds deserves prime shelf space on her desk. Packed with how-to information and tips from his personal experiences and those of other freelance professionals, Back for Seconds gives writers the blueprint they need to make a successful career of freelance business writing.

Back for Seconds has broad appeal for writers with a variety of backgrounds and circumstances—stay-at-home parents, career changers, part-timers, full-timers’—all are welcomed by Bowerman. Whether you live in the Big Apple or the Little Apple, there’s plenty of commercial writing to go around, from copywriting to annual reports, sales letters to brochures—Back for Seconds will guide writers building their businesses in large markets and small. Profiles of successful freelance corporate writers fill the book (complete with writers’ URLs so you don’t have to just take Bowerman’s word for it) representing a variety of backgrounds and experiences. In Bowerman’s experience, there’s room for everyone at the table; marketing your skills and finding your niche are key.

Cover of Peter Bowerman's Well-Fed Writer
In addition to pages and pages of strategies, examples, testimonials, and personal anecdotes, Back for Seconds includes several valuable appendices. The first is an abridgement of Bowerman’s first book, The Well-Fed Writer (which I found so informative and idea-generating, I went out and bought the first book). Others offer more in-depth interviews with working commercial writers, including how they started their businesses, their niches, and meeting challenges; a step-by-step case study on a business writing project; a quick overview of business structures, taxes, and insurance; writing resources, including books, Websites, newsletters, writers’ groups and organizations; and self-publishing.

Placing a heavy emphasis on sales and marketing of the business writer’s services, Bowerman does more than just tell writers how important it is; he shows readers how it’s done, shares others’ innovative ideas for reaching out to clients, and motivates writers every step of the way, even when it comes to tough tasks like cold-calling potential clients.

Bowerman’s conversational and encouraging writing style puts readers immediately at ease. He never loses sight of the reality of freelancing though, and doesn’t gloss over the hard work it takes to build a business. He’s honest—it may take more than 500 cold-calls before you start seeing a return on your time and effort, however if you keep doing it, it will get easier, and you will see results.

Bowerman’s real skill is motivation; after the cold-calling chapter, even I felt ready to tackle the Yellow Pages (and almost nothing scares me more than cold-calling—what if the person I’m calling thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about??). If you’re serious about being a commercial writer, Back for Seconds will motivate and inspire you to get started on making that dream a reality.

You can buy Peter Bowerman’s books here.

Book Review: The ABCs of Writing for Children

Review by Betty Winslow

The ABCs of Writing for Children.
Compiled by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books
November 2002
258 pgs.
Writing-related

The title of this book implies a linear, nuts-and-bolts approach to the subject of writing for children, but in reality it’s almost a stream of consciousness on the subject, collected by Koehler-Pentacoff from the minds of 114 authors and illustrators and loosely arranged into 46 chapters with titles like “First Times,” “What Is the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?,” “Rejection,” and “Picture Books.” Each chapter is full of highly personal stories, tips, and anecdotes, which are fun to read (although the way some are repeated in several places had a slightly disconcerting “deja vu” effect on me: wait, haven’t I read this already?).

Although I found the book’s arrangement a bit hard to navigate and the introductory italicized titles for each small anecdote seemed to me unnecessary and often confusing, I knew I would enjoy reading what Koehler-Pentacoff had to offer, since I love children’s books and I find the people who write and illustrate them interesting. Reading what Jane Yolen, Doug Cushman, Patricia McKissack, Ruth Heller, David Adler, and R. L. Stine (among others) had to say about writing children’s books, inspiration, rejection, censorship, book signings, and a host of other topics was bound to be good! It was, too, and I also picked up some practical tips on writing, learned more about the stories behind the stories kids love, and discovered a bit about what makes these people tick.

I think that last bit is important. Children’s authors and illustrators may not be movers and shakers in the eyes of the world, but their work affects the children of the world and thus the future of mankind. Therefore, I for one like to keep abreast of what’s going on in children’s literature. And this book tells you some of that.

Unfortunately, I had to get beyond a few more problems to get to the good stuff, including misplaced or missing punctuation and words (and a few extra or misused ones) and a wonky index that led me to the wrong Cushman several times as well as to a few pages that didn’t contain what I thought they were going to.

On the plus side, I also found some helpful back-of-the-book features, including a glossary, a resource list, a writer-related bibliography, and the aforementioned (and somewhat less helpful) index.

All in all, if the world of children’s literature interests you, I think you’ll find the extra effort it takes to get through this book is worthwhile and you’ll come away with a lot to think about. You’re also liable to come away with a list of books you somehow missed along the way and want to read now. Go for it! We may be grown-ups, but no one is too old for well-written and wonderfully illustrated children’s books!

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books

2000

264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
By Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Writer’s Digest Books
298 pages
2001
Amazon.com price: $13.99

Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a screenwriter for both film and television who was once told at film school that she couldn’t write a script about a female hero because those stories don’t sell. She vehemently disagreed and spent the next few years searching for the female hero’s journey. Despite taking every class she could find on the subject and learning a lot about myths, writing and feminist theory, she could find no answers, until she found a book about the journey of the goddess Inanna, the oldest myth in history. Then she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for—the female myth.

When she did, Jack Heffron at Writer’s Digest Books threw a monkey wrench into it by asking her, “What about the male hero?” Although she felt that the male hero had been done to death, she began to explore it, and discovered that the human journey was a part of both men and women. It could more appropriately be termed “feminine” and “masculine,” she felt, for men and women both took descending inner journeys albeit at different times and with varying results.

Cover of Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original CharactersHer research and thoughts on these matters became 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which offers writers a new way of developing characters and plots through the use of archetyped characters taken from the pages of ancient myth and modern literature as well as from the screens of film and television. Ms. Schmidt has a lot of interesting things to say about archetypes and their journeys and how fiction writers can use them to produce blueprints from which to work and maps to plot out where their stories are going. One caveat, though—many of her examples will only make sense to readers who are conversant with U.S. popular culture.

Whether you agree with her theories or not, though—in fact, whether or not you even understand them completely—Schmidt’s archetypes are liable to change the way you write as well as the way you watch television and films, the way you read, even the way you look at friends and acquaintances. If, after reading this book, you find yourself unable to watch your favorite television show or read an entire novel without saying to yourself, “Oh, yeah, she’s a Nurturer!” or “He’s a typical Fool” and you catch yourself at the next family dinner trying to figure out if your cousin is a Father’s Daughter or a Backstabber, just remember—you were warned.

Book reviewed by Betty Winslow