Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose

Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Three Rivers Press; Revised, Updated edition, 2013. ISBN: 978-0385346894.

Ari Meermans

From the quirky and playful title to the jacket copy (“Today’s writers need more spunk than Strunk”) to the introduction, Sin and Syntax makes promises no book on grammar — those dull, sometimes impenetrable, and often pretentious “rules” — could possibly deliver. Or could it? Could a book on grammar be a fun as well as an informative read that will teach us how to write “wicked good prose,” prose we all dream will bring a gleam to an editor’s eyes, leaving her morning coffee to grow cold while she reads on?

I had to know.

I also thought it important to know the credentials held by someone promising so much for one volume in the already crowded field of books on the craft of writing. Constance Hale is an author of stories appearing in newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the Miami Herald, as well as in magazines such as The Atlantic, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian and has been published in anthologies including France, A Love Story (Seal Press) and Best Travel Writing 2006 (Travelers’ Tales). She is also a founder of The Prose Doctors (an editors’ collective) and today edits for Harvard Business Press and works at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She should know a thing or three about writing prose that sells.

That settled, I dove into Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose.


[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] People often think that this is just a grammar book, but it’s really about putting it all together — words, phrasing, rhythm, imagery — and arriving at a distinctive voice and style. — Constance Hale   [/perfectpullquote]

Turns out Sin and Syntax isn’t just a book on grammar. Oh, the grammar is there on the theory you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them, but Hale’s point throughout Sin and Syntax is that prose (flesh) “gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar” and I think it’s an apt metaphor for the reason for those stuffy and sometimes pompous grammar rules: to bring clarity to spoken and written communication. Once we accept that grammar is more about making the underlying structure of our writing clear, precise, and interesting and less about correctness, the fear of the rules falls away and we’re better able to make them work for us.

Many of the books on the craft of writing — of which there are far too many and at last count I own thirty-seven of them by various authors — range from reasonably good to quite good at the what to do and why to do it yet leave many an inexperienced or not well-read writer to wail, “But how do I do it?” I thought if Sin and Syntax could show writers how to bring grammar and language together to craft prose that excites, on how to fine-tune our prose to bring life and movement to our writing it would have lived up to its promise. The book does that far better than most books on writing in the depth of attention it pays to each passage provided for examination. Hale highlights and breaks down extensive passages of stellar and engaging writing and speaking — from Shakespeare to Joan Didion to Cormac McCarthy to Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and explains in detail how the author or speaker’s intended effect was achieved from carefully chosen nouns and the words surrounding them to the rhythms and lyricism (musicality) the authors instilled through their sentence structures. Yet, she maintains a relaxed and conversational tone and lets her witty style shine through and this makes the book an easy and enjoyable cover-to-cover read.


The three-part structure Constance Hale chose for Sin and Syntax is simple and progresses smoothly from the basic to the sophisticated through Words, Sentences, and Music, making the book accessible as a reference or refresher for the parts of grammar each of us finds trickiest.

Part I: Words covers the eight parts of speech, each with its own chapter: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Interjections. (Have you ever been told you use too many adjectives or that your descriptions are too wordy or boring? You might want to look at your nouns. Or, that your verbs are weak or that your adverbs are redundant? Yep, that’s covered here, too, with examples that bring it home.)

Part II: Sentences addresses how these parts of speech are brought together to begin to form the bones of communication, again each with its own chapter: the Subject, the Predicate, Simple Sentences, Phrases and Clauses, and Length and Tone.

Part III: Music. The four chapters in this section delve into the ways we, too, can find our own unique voices and grow our own individual styles. These chapters are devoted to Melody, Rhythm, Lyricism, and Voice.

Does it surprise you to see music included in a book on writing prose? It shouldn’t; it is in the beauty, rhythm, and lyricism of the English language that we find the emotion and the ability to make the connections to other humans we strive for in our prose.

Each chapter in each of the three parts includes five sections:

Bones (the underlying grammar framework).

Flesh shows us how to bring life to our prose through specific word and phrase choices while playing with sentence structure to enhance those choices.

Cardinal Sins debunks grammar myths such as admonitions against split infinitives — just make sure you have a good reason for splitting that infinitive and can pull it off with panache — and ending sentences with prepositions (of course, we can). The “cardinal sins” sections also give examples of convoluted, stilted, and stylistically terrible sentences to be avoided, many of which we learned in school and business and technical writing and find so difficult to unlearn.

Carnal Pleasures — Ah, you were wondering where the “sin” in the book’s title comes in, weren’t you? — shows us how to break grammar rules knowingly and effectively to inject power and energy into our writing and grow our authorial voices as well as create unique voices for our characters and the voice of each story and story world.

Catechism sections conclude each chapter with quirky exercises to help us with such things as the exploration of the sounds of the words we choose in our writing, the sounds we hear in the world around us every day so that we can reproduce them for effect in our writing, and the metaphors we either create or employ in unexpected ways.


[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Great writers understand the richness of the English lexicon, and they take time to choose their words carefully, especially when revising. — Sin and Syntax[/perfectpullquote]

The English lexicon is indeed rich — in history, in variety, and in nuance — and it’s that better understanding of nuance which can elevate prose to the memorable, the precise, the profound, and the beautiful. If I have a quibble about Sin and Syntax, it’s that it does not address more thoroughly the importance of creating nuance along with the necessary precision in word choice.

Right here is probably a good place to mention Hale’s “five new principles of prose” which she revisits throughout Sin and Syntax:

  • Relish every word.
  • Aim deep, but be simple.
  • Take risks.
  • Seek beauty.
  • Find the right pitch.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to tape those principles just above your keyboard or writing station as a reminder of what you’re seeking to accomplish in each writing session. I did.

So does Sin and Syntax live up to the promises made that the information contained within will help us write “wicked good prose”? Overall, I think it does and I recommend Sin and Syntax as an addition to every writer’s bookshelf.

See Contance Hale’s Website Sin and Syntax | An online salon for those who love wicked good prose. Ari Meermans has been a teacher, technical writer, and Software/IT project manager. She is a language and writing enthusiast and chocolate fiend. When her nose isn’t buried in a book, she can be found at Absolute Write.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (1995)

Carla Miriam Levy

About a third of the way through Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, there is an anecdote that changed the way I think about scene construction and dialogue. When Stein was a young playwright participating in a workshop at Lee Strasbourg’s famous Actors Studio in New York, he and another participant were instructed to improvise a scene. The workshop leader, the Academy-Award-winning director Elia Kazan, took Stein aside and privately instructed him on his role: He was the headmaster of an elite private school, and he had expelled a disruptive miscreant of a student who had defiantly squandered many chances to right his behavior. Stein was to meet the boy’s mother, he was told, and though she would beg him to readmit, under no condition should he agree.

Then, outside of Stein’s hearing, Kazan conferred with Stein’s improvisation partner, Rona Jaffe, author of the bestselling novel The Best of Everything, who was to play the mother. Kazan told Jaffe that her son was a bright and well-behaved boy, that he had been persecuted by his teachers, and that she must insist that the headmaster must take him back to the school immediately.

Two participants in the scene, two radically varying interpretations of the world. How could a setup like this yield anything but fireworks?

Stein’s point in recounting this episode is that you can create conflict by giving your characters opposing desires, opposing goals—but why not go even further? Why not place their entire worldviews in opposition, their entire notion of truth? Stein’s headmaster is certain that the boy is a rotten apple beyond correction. Jaffe, as the boy’s mother, takes it for granted that her son can do no wrong. Not only are the characters’ desires at loggerheads; so are the fundamental facts through which they interpret everything they see and hear.

This passage, like many others in Stein on Writing, had me itching to rush back to my manuscript and start fixing things. Stein had given me a clear new lens through which to examine any scene that flagged, any dialogue that didn’t crackle as it should. After reading the passage I was ready to examine every scene in my novel and ask myself, what facts does each character take as given that the other does not know or not believe to be true? The potential is thrilling.

* * *

Sol Stein knows a few things about making fiction and nonfiction ready for publication. A bestselling author himself, he also edited bestsellers by others, including Kazan and James Baldwin. In Stein on Writing, first published in 1995, he indulges in some name dropping, recounting his experiences learning from and teaching writers like these. But the book is not a memoir, nor even a memoir-advice hybrid. It is, as Stein frames it, “a book of usable solutions.” Stein aims to teach you “how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” He states up front that the goal of his book is to help writers create writing that is suitable for publication. The famous names are his résumé.

In chapters covering everything from strong characterization, to developing tension, suspense, conflict, and plot, to trimming the “flab” from your writing, to tackling the revision of a novel-length manuscript, Stein provides a toolbox of techniques that, like the lesson from his improv session with Kazan and Jaffe, take familiar writing advice and carry it further, providing a new angle from which to interrogate your own writing.

For a writer like me, Stein’s formulations are fresh and intriguing. I am something of an advanced beginner at fiction. Professionally, I have written everything from legal briefs to technical documentation, and I am an experienced writer of critical essays. In fiction, though, I am just finding my legs, laboring through my first novel and publishing a short story or two in the meantime. If you have thought about craft a great deal already, you might find Stein on Writing solid and helpful, if not revelatory. For me, much of it is downright inspiring. The advice is accessible and actionable, with something in nearly every chapter that makes me think, “Yes, I can do that!” It leaves me charged to go press Stein’s techniques into service on the page.

Stein emphasizes that much of his guidance applies with equal force to both writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and he invites each to eavesdrop on the sections directed at the other. Most crucial to Stein is that, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the writer never lose her bead on the foremost purpose of writing: “To provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.” Other common goals of writers—to express oneself, to be adored by fans, to make money—might be achievable side effects, Stein says, but the primary intention must be to create enjoyment for readers:

Sex has to be good for both partners. That is also the key to writing both fiction and nonfiction. It has to be a good experience for both partners, the writer and the reader. And it is a source of distress to me to observe how frequently writers ignore the pleasure of their partners.

Most of the book aims to guide writers through the work of creating that pleasurable experience for the reader. A recurring theme in the book is something Stein calls particularity, and it is one of the concepts that drives me back to my manuscript busting out with ideas for improving my characterization and description. Particularity is Stein’s refinement on the notion that “detail is the life blood of fiction,” his way of shining new light on that common bit of writing wisdom. Stein notes that it is not merely detail that distinguishes good writing, but detail that is carefully selected to individualize. What he calls particularity is “the detail that differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any others like it.” Particularity steers the writer away from generalizations and clichés, and toward details that are surprising and evocative. “Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions,” Stein writes, in concluding remarks structured as a tongue-in-cheek tablet of Commandments for the writer, “for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.”

Indeed, much of Stein’s guidance comes by way of adding his own particularity to common writing shibboleths, turning advice you’ve heard many times before into exercises and techniques that may offer new insight. In the chapter titled “Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs,” Stein expands on the common idea of starting with action using a metaphor of an engine turning over. The goal of the opening paragraph, he observes, is to excite the readers’ curiosity. It is not necessarily action that does this—Stein points out that we must know who is in the car before we see it crash—but rather a sense that conflict is brewing. He illustrates techniques to rev the story’s engine as early as possible, using characterization, setting, omens, or surprise to engage reader curiosity right in the opening paragraphs.

Stein’s application of particularity for improving characterization includes an idea-provoking discussion of what he calls markers, the details of appearance or behavior that particularize character background, class, or other traits in a vivid instant. Such characterization, executed well, can even generate conflict on its own, especially when distinct characters are trapped together in a crucible, Stein’s concept of a place or situation that characters cannot leave, such as a school or a marriage. The notion of the crucible lends particularity to the general idea that stories thrive on conflict; it brews ideas for how to create conflict.

In a later chapter, “Liposuctioning Flab,” Stein provides a systematic process to back up the common advice to write concisely and trim unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. The exercises and examples he provides encourage the writer to think carefully about meanings, weighing one word against another. Urging that “one plus one equals a half,” he drives home (with some very funny examples) the point that using two descriptors or two images most often weakens the effect of both. It’s advice that can make you feel like a better writer the moment you read it.

In another thought-provoking discussion toward the end of the book, Stein explores the concept of resonance, which he describes as “an aura of significance beyond the components of a story.” I was particularly intrigued by this notion, as a first-time novelist very keen to produce a novel that is about something. Unlike characterization or suspense or adverb trimming, the generation of resonance is tough to teach through a systematic and practical technique. Stein lists off some ways that writers can achieve resonance, including biblical or historical allusion, reference to life and death, the use of aphorisms and philosophical statements, even made-up psychological theories and technobabble. All of these strike me as questionable on the surface, perhaps even dangerous if not handled with extreme care and expertise. But it is to Stein’s credit that he broaches the subject at all, rather than restricting himself to nuts-and-bolts advice that can be distilled into to rules of thumb and exercises for practice. It’s a more open-ended chapter than some of the others, leaving one with rich questions to ponder, if not immediate inspiration for the editorial pen.

* * *

Still, Stein on Writing is not without its blemishes. Stein provides many examples to illustrate his pithy points, but too often they are drawn from his own work, and in some cases, one wonders whether he could not have found better examples had he searched further afield. His chapter on love scenes, for instance, contains some solid advice about generating tension and producing an emotional response in the reader. But he smothers the advice in with a lengthy analysis of a love scene from one of his novels that relies on a rather cliché and unerotic device, a man spilling drops of wine on a woman’s breast and licking them off. More disappointingly, the scene reveals almost nothing of the point-of-view character’s feelings as the seduction unfolds, despite Stein’s instructive emphasis on the importance of those feelings. It’s a rather poor example for much of what he says is crucial to a good love scene.

And some of Stein’s advice betrays the book’s 1990s vintage, particularly in the last section which covers resources for writers; at one point he instructs you to use Google, “,” and “in the search box, write writers’ conferences.” Such advice, along with mention of printed industry guides that can be found in libraries, rings quaint to the twenty-first century ear.

But the foundations of craft in the book are solid, and as close to timeless as writing advice can be. “Most writers reveal what others conceal,” he notes, emphasizing that all his technical advice is meant to help you expose an emotional core of truth that creates a meaningful experience for readers. And even if you have quibbles or questions about some of the specifics—as I do—every chapter is at the very least thought-provoking, and most deliver real workable guidance to improving your writing. Read this book, and then get back to your manuscript and start making it stronger.

Carla Miriam Levy has been a physicist, a lawyer, a film critic, and a technical writer. Her published work includes essays on Indian film in Outlook Magazine and a short story in GNU Journal. She posts on the AW forums as Lakey and tweets occasionally at @carla_filmigeek.

Review: Time To Write by Kelly L. Stone

Cover of Kelly Stone's book Time to WriteKelly L. Stone. Time to Write. Adams Media, 2008

Review by Betty Winslow

Having a hard time carving out time to write? Yeah, me too. Life is often so full of responsibilities, distractions, crises, and interruptions that getting anything extra done seems impossible. Novelist and freelance writer Kelly L. Stone completely understands; she established her own freelance writing career while holding down a full-timejob and raising a family.

Do I hear you asking, in a wistful voice, “But how?” Have hope, fellow writers! Reading Stone’s Time to Write (with its bold cover promise of “No excuses, no distractions, [and] no more blank pages”) will answer that question a dozen times over. No matter where you are in your writing career or what sort of writing you do, you should be able to find something helpful in Stone’s bag of tips, tricks, advice, and encouragement from more than 100 professional writers. (And if you don’t, read it again. You probably missed something the first time through!)

Trying to figure out how to balance writing and family life? Wondering if a schedule might help your production level? Dealing with distraction, rejection, or your inner critic? Looking for some useful tools to make your writing life smoother? All that and more is covered, in the voices of writers like Jodi Picoult, Debbie Macomber, Sandra Brown, Cecil Murphey, Steve Berry, and Rick Mofina.

However, if you’re curious about how exactly Stone herself does it, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. Aside from a few (very) brief personal comments and anecdotes sprinkled here and there, she keeps her own writing life pretty much in the dark, which means you may end up (as I did a few times) wondering out loud, “So, how did you do this, Kelly?”

Still, this is a minor quibble. It in no way detracts from Time to Write’’s value to anyone who’s ever wondered how on earth to cram writing into an already jammed life. Are you already shaking your head and muttering, “There’s no way!” There is. Truly. Reading Time to Write can help you figure out ways to fit writing into your own busy life. No more excuses!

Postscript: Time to Write also introduced me to a number of writers I was not be familiar with, and some intriguing titles. Looks like I’ll be using Stone’s tips to make time to read, too!

AW’er Betty Winslow has been freelancing for almost 30 years and her writing has appeared in many magazines and eight books (and on several other websites). 

Ursula K. Le Guin, Finding My Elegy

Cover of Ursula Le Guin's Finding My Elegy, showing landscape and sunsetI have to confess, I’ve stalled writing this review because I don’t want to think about reading any elegies for Ursula Le Guin. Ive been reading and treasuring her books and essays and poems since I was child growing up in the 70s in a single-wide trailer on the wind-scoured American Great Plains. Le Guin wrote doors for me to other places, fascinating places, places to dream of visiting and aspire to reach. An elegy traditionally laments someone’s death. In a more contemporary sense, an elegy may be an expression of existential or metaphysical loss, sadness, or yearning. To consider an elegy for Le Guin means having to admit she’s old and cannot live and write forever. I hate that. Not only because it requires facing the realization that I’ve gotten a great deal older as well, but because the notion itself makes me sad, anticipating the inevitable loss of a treasured friend and ally regardless of the fact that she’s not someone I know personally.

There’s no introduction, no forward, no dedication; Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, byUrsula K. Le Guin opens quite simply and immediately after the colophon and table of contents with a short, early poem. Offering serves as both preface and invocation, entreating the reader and invisible gods to judge a poem made of the verge of sleep but then forgotten upon waking, and if finding it good, to accept it as an offering. Taken with the resonance of elegy in the collection’s title, and the clear symbolism of sleep as a metaphor for death, the initial poem is a clear invitation to the reader to explore these inner lands with the writer, then make up our own minds regarding the worth and weight of the journey.

Inner lands are familiar territory for Le Guin. Her essay collection, The Language of the Night, begins with a 1973 essay called “A Citizen of Mondath” in which she opens with a quotation from A Dreamer’s Tales, by Lord Dunsany:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun.

Le Guin concludes her essay with the observation that, “Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country.” It’s fitting, then, that nearly forty years later, Le Guin is still exploring those Inner Lands with additional maturity, insight, and gravitas.

It’s sometimes difficult to explore big and abstract ideas in prose without sounding pompous and impenetrable, and likewise its hard to express simple daily observations without sounding trite and a little dull and droning on with too many words to convey what was an instant of experience. These are the sorts of insights sometimes better reserved for poetry.

Finding My Elegy offers poems written between 1960 and 2010, so some of them will likely be familiar to the longtime Le Guin reader. Seventy of the poems were selected from earlier volumes, and seventy-seven are presented for the first time. The poems range in length and form, romp with expression and wordplay, and wind about exploring the impossible and inexpressible, the sacred contrasted with the profane.

There are quiet poems about life and work and sleeping cats, here, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s gift for juxtaposing the mundane with the profound. There are longer, more structured, careful poems, exploring the faces of god and motherhood and love and sex and despair and sleep.

The poems span the entirety of Le Guin’s career so far, from 1960 to present; collected and presented together, they distill much of Le Guin’s writing life. Finding My Elegy is not so much lament as examination, a recollection of a literary body of work that is rich, evocative, and sometimes whimsical much like any life.

An elegy for such a remarkable body of work and thought must be sought, because theres so very much to recall, sort, and consider, that there are no simple summations. The entire retrospective taken as a whole reads like a single long poem made of many smaller parts.

Nothing about Le Guin’s selection and presentation of these poems is accidental or random, and as a reader its only fitting that we approach this collection with the same attention to detail and mindfulness, both of the parts and of the whole of the book. As Le Guins reader, we seek so that we, too, may find her elegy.

If you haven’t read much poetry,don’t worry: Finding My Elegy is an excellent door into the inner lands for any reader. If you’re a long time poetry lover,you’ll find the journey extraordinarily rewarding and well worth your consideration. Ultimately, the collection, itself, is a long and lovely elegy to be remembered, reconsidered, and revisited again and again.

Previously published on Floccinaucical.

Review: The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron

Jack Heffron. The Writer’s Idea Book. Writer’s Digest Books

Review by Mridu Khullar

Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book is a unique experience. He’ll have you sitting on your desk with a paper and pen in your hand like your high school English teacher did. But unlike Mrs. Matthews, who had huge glasses and a mole on her chin, Jack doesn’t force you to write. His words inspire you, guide you and most of all make you want to write.

You’ll find more than 400 prompts, and absolutely no nonsense. Heffron doesn’t waste time — not yours, not his. And his unmatched advice will prove to be of help to not only beginning writers who can’t find any ideas, but also to established pros.

Although The Writer’s Idea Book is aimed at writers of novels, stories, screenplays, poetry and nonfiction, it is mostly of use to writers of fiction. The author guides the reader through the various twists and turns required in plot construction, coming up with believable yet interesting characters, and basing stories on places you’ve visited or known.

If you’re stuck on the opening, chapter ending, character creation or even plot technicalities, this book will give you the push in the right direction towards taking your work from blocked to finished.

For nonfiction writers too, there are a variety of ideas. Write about your family, your interests, your desires, the things you never thought you knew and so much more. The prompts in each chapter will guide you towards better understanding of the events around you, and you’ll be able to include all that and more in your writing.

The value of The Writer’s Idea Book is not in the prompts or the guidance, but in the way it prepares you to find your own ideas. Even when you’re finished with the book, you’ll be able to generate more ideas, better characters, vivid scenarios and much better writing. The lessons will be imbibed long after the book is dusty and forgotten.

Prompts are scattered throughout the book like candy on your bed. Just as you put your head to the pillow, you find the little treat waiting to be discovered.

The Writer’s Idea Book is an all-in-one idea generator, guidebook, reference and workbook. Heffron neatly puts together everything you need in one package. The prompts make sure that you’ll do more writing than reading and without knowing it, you’ll have done a lot of work, most of which you’ll be able to get published. The author makes you think you’re practicing, but in effect, you’re actually writing. And published or not, you’ll certainly learn a lot and emerge a much better writer.

Mridu Khullar is a freelance journalist, author, and entrepreneur. I’ve lived and worked from four different continents and several different countries. She currently divides her time between London and New Delhi. Mridu Khullar has a Website, and can be found on Twitter as @mridukhullar.

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

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
250 pages 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
192 pp.

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,, natch. The intense personal nature of his readers’ feedback inspired, 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

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.

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