Tag Archives: book review

book review: the art of empathy

The Art of Empathy: A Training Course in Life’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren

I know, I know–you’re probably wondering how a psychology book founds its way onto my reviews of writing books.

But here’s the thing I love about psychology and sociology books. They teach us about ourselves and others, and isn’t that like one gigantic, never-ending character study?

In short: yes.

Empathy, argues the passionate author McLaren, is the sum of your emotional intelligence expressed in myriad ways. All our emotions are gifts to guide us through social interactions and everything else in life–anger to warn us that our boundaries have been violated, shame to warn us to avoid confrontation, fear heightens our senses to protect us. These emotions, and our skills in dealing with them, are key to our survival and to resolving conflict.

I enjoyed this book. The language is accessible and assumes nothing of the reader, save a desire to learn. It handles tough relationships with a gentle, caring hand, and offers emotional honesty. Like I said, it’s a self-help book for people who want to handle their emotions better, but all throughout I saw great information for writers. I have another tool in my toolkit and a new lens to focus my people-watching–the gifts of our most basic emotions, and how everyone deals with them.

Verdict: check it out from the library!


story trumps structure: a review

Story trumps structure: how to write unforgettable fiction by BREAKING THE RULES

by Steven James

This book’s title is telling. On one hand, yes, story trumps structure. A good story trumps all. I’m on board with that. But the rest reads like a gimmick.

What this book means by ‘break the rules’ is actually this: ignore all those other rules, but follow MY rules (and we’ll call them principles so it’s totally not the same thing hahaha aren’t I clever?) and write your novel without any ‘structure’ at all. Just use this other kind of structure which we will not call structure, we’ll call it more principles to guide you, see, still clever!

75% of this book you can find in other writing books. Full stop. The ideas might get different titles, but they’re there. This book rehashes concepts like tension, conflict, plot twists, escalation, and story promises–all of which are familiar territory to anyone reading other contemporary writing books.

The other 25%, if you’re a quote-endquote organic writer, might actually be useful. Most professional writers who have written writing books are the organized, plotting types, so this is the first place I’ve seen this kind of in-depth discussion of writing by the seat of your pants and making it work. However, I still have a couple of quibbles…

For one, the plotters are not at war with the pantsers. There is no war. Got it? Okay. I hate the dichotomy of you’re either this or this, especially when it comes from writing teachers. If you’re a student of writing (and we’re all students of writing) what works now might not work in ten books. And ten books from then, you’ll probably have new methods and prefer different techniques. And that’s how it should be. I pants a lot more than I did when I was writing my first book, but I still love my outlines.

I don’t buy into the attitude that if an outline didn’t work for you once, that must mean you’re not an outliner so just throw it away and be freeeeeee! No, no, no. I’ve had so many outlines that didn’t work because I wasn’t good at outlining yet. It’s a skill, one of many. There is no war between plotters and pantsers. We’ll get along just fine as long as I get that last cookie.

Some of the advice for organic writing is simply not sustainable–such as rereading large chunks of your novel before you sit down to write every day. I want to know how to to enter this mythical universe where hours of solitude and privacy are handed to me every day. I eek out my writing time a few minutes at a time. Being a plotter helps because with an outline or at least a clear idea of where I’m going, I spend a bit less time exploring. But where in the laws of the cosmos does it dictate that organic writers can’t be organized like their plotting peers? All writers, regardless of process, can benefit from tools such as lists, journals, and a side-document filled with ongoing questions, concerns, and ideas.

Like many others, this book is rife with casual sexism. Heroes are hes, unless they’re mothers or really want to get married, then they’re shes. If you want to hurt your protagonist, hurt his wife or some other woman that ‘belongs’ to him. And it seems a bit pointless to complain, because hey all the other writing books do it, too, right? But it doesn’t have to be this way. Considering that more than half of writers and readers are women, why do male authors assume that other men are the default of their audience? Using gender-neutral pronouns is so laughably simple and would include everyone–not just men and women.

This book doesn’t make it on my recommended list, for the obvious reasons. If you can snag a copy from your library, Part II (organic writing) is worth a read, but otherwise, the rest is a gimmick to make readers think they’re ditching the rules, when really they’re just learning the rules under different, flashier names.

Oh, and the troubleshooting chart in the back is downright insulting. I appreciate these kinds of charts for baking, but for writing, not so much, because they assume I’ve already figured out the problem. Do I need a chart to tell me that if my problem is ‘too many flashbacks’ (pg 286), the answer is to cut them? That isn’t helpful. How about a chart that makes me answer questions about how important each flashback is, so I can actually determine if it’s needed to tell the story? Obvious chart is obvious.

review: the storytelling animal

the storytelling animallink: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathon Gottschall

With a title like this, I couldn’t not read it. I love learning about the storytelling aspect of fiction most of all. This book delves into how fiction (the stories we tell ourselves) infiltrates many aspects of our lives.

This book is not a how-to or a writing guide, by any means.  Instead, the chapters discuss dreams and how we fictionalize our experiences into memories.

The good: it’s an easy read citing a lot of studies.  The chapter on dreams was entertaining, and the chapter on unreliable narrators struck a chord with what I’ve read in other psychology books. I agree with his premise of our need for stories, and how we’re evolving storytelling to satisfy those needs in emerging media.

The bad: it’s long for what it is. Casual sexism proliferates, with women only existing in examples for the purpose of belonging to men or procreating the human race, an object to be enraptured by the (of course male) storyteller.

I found his take on Vivian Paley’s book Boys and Girls to be particularly disturbing. He cites the study she did in her classroom as some sort of inflexible law of how the sexes will always behave–segregation of masculine/feminine (aggressive/domestic) play due to evolutionary tendencies.  But the reality is, gender roles are a construct, and changes made inside a classroom environment cannot have their full impact because the world outside the classroom doesn’t change–their home lives, their histories, and the media they consume.

All in all, this book could have used another edit to trim redundant concepts and sexist language.

review: write your novel in a month

I read Write Your Novel In a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next mostly for the sake of reviewing it, with the hopes I’d pick up a tip or two for productivity I’ve either forgotten or missed.

I can’t figure out how to get started on my opinions, because I’m about to get real “Political Correctness Police” on it (book’s phrase, not mine). So let’s start with the overall:

Tone. One thing I did enjoy about this book was the you-can-do-it attitude. No sneering or arrogance here, only unbridled enthusiasm for the writer who wants to write a novel in a month. Awesome.

Content. Straightforward information to prepare a writer to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Realistic advice, plus a solid plan to get you there. The craft given in the first half of the book is really just the important stuff to kickstart the story, with some afterwards craft lessons to help tighten and edit once the month is over.

Were it not for my quibbles below, this would be an A+, must-read, highly-recommended book. These quibbles are very minor if you’re, say, a straight white dude. You might think they don’t matter.

And honestly, I had a hard time convincing myself to stay angry long enough to write about them. But here I am, because it needs to be said, because even innocent, ignorant, or jokingly-made comments can hurt, they can still be sexist, racist, and homophobic. Continue reading review: write your novel in a month

story engineering: a book review

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

The overview (from Amazon.com):

What makes a good story or a screenplay great?

The vast majority of writers begin the storytelling process with only a partial understanding where to begin. Some labor their entire lives without ever learning that successful stories are as dependent upon good engineering as they are artistry. But the truth is, unless you are master of the form, function and criteria of successful storytelling, sitting down and pounding out a first draft without planning is an ineffective way to begin.

Story Engineering starts with the criteria and the architecture of storytelling, the engineering and design of a story–and uses it as the basis for narrative. The greatest potential of any story is found in the way six specific aspects of storytelling combine and empower each other on the page. When rendered artfully, they become a sum in excess of their parts.

You’ll learn to wrap your head around the big pictures of storytelling at a professional level through a new approach that shows how to combine these six core competencies which include:

  • Four elemental competencies of concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot)
  • Two executional competencies of scene construction and writing voice

The true magic of storytelling happens when these six core competencies work together in perfect harmony. And the best part? Anyone can do it!

Barb’s thoughts:

This book promises a lot, and for the most part, it delivers. I’ve used the tools and charts in this book many times through the last few years. Just about any successful story can be deconstructed through the lens of the six competencies. It’s a great tool to see how the masters do it. Even stories that “don’t follow any real structure” probably do. They do it so well we didn’t notice.

The three dimensions of character and mission-driven scene execution are on point.  The four part narrative structure (with pinch points, like screenplays) illuminated beginning-middle-end to me in a way that a myriad other books calling it a three act structure simply couldn’t.

And yet. No book is perfect, and this one could have slimmed down at the line-editing stage. There are pages and pages of pet phrases like “wrap your head around this” and “ever hope to get published.” With all that repetition, the voice of the book sometimes comes off as arrogant or even cynical. But these complaints are small ones compared to the information and perspective provided in the book.

Verdict: a must-read for storytellers.