Plan Your Novel Like a Pro – Beth and Ezra Barany

plan your novel cover

“It’s your dream to be a novelist, to touch readers’ hearts and minds, to excite and wow them, to transport them.”

As lock-down rumbles on, are you revisiting a long-held dream of writing a novel – but, not quite sure where or how to start? Perhaps this book will indeed ‘get you excited to plan your novel’. Broken down into topics and designed as a four-week course, it has the huge benefit of not demanding hours and hours of time you don’t really have. Easy to dip in and out of, a single exercise could take as little as 15 minutes. Personally, I find that far more manageable than needing to carve out a couple of hours each evening – and thus, I’m more likely to give it a go!

The book is organised into four sections, with topics including creating your elevator pitch and synopsis, characters, plot points, and storyboarding.

My favourite section was getting to know your characters. It’s not ‘new’ information, per se, but it’s very well presented and very usable. In fact, I used it to sketch out my first ever D&D character – a new lock-down hobby ūüėČ – and it worked brilliantly. It really helps that everything is kept light and easy, so you can spend five minutes doing a rough sketch, or half an hour fleshing out more details, whatever suits your needs at the time.

The writing style is very chatty – perhaps a little too much at times, as the co-authors ‘handover’ chapters as if it were a powerpoint presentation, which felt a little odd in print! But still, I liked the laid-back, friendly approach. The ethos seems to be: have fun! Writing should be enjoyable!

Overall, then, I was pretty impressed and would recommend this especially for beginners. It’s quite a short volume, but there are plenty of recommended further readings, and an online workbook to further the exercises.

NetGalley eARC: 128 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 9th April – 30th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

Teen Writer’s Guide – Jennifer Jenkins

teen writers guide cover

Your road map to writing.

I know, I know – I haven’t been a teenager for rather a long time. But when it comes to writing advice, there’s a lot to be said about this kind of straightforward, no-nonsense approach. I might have double the years, but I got a lot from this.

Interspersed with lots of samples of her own writing, used to illustrate the topics, Jennifer Jenkins takes us on a trip from the idea stage to publishing, via characterisation, tension, world building, and more.

None of the advice is exactly ‘new’ or startling, but it’s very well presented. I particularly liked the chapter on dialogue – not just the nuts and bolts (e.g. where punctuation goes) but so many useful examples on mixing speech and action. I’ve been reading writing advice for a long time now, but this might be the best ‘show don’t tell’ guide I’ve stumbled across!

Kudos to the author for presenting the writing journey with as much humour and encouragement as well as useful tips. The target audience doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, just missing a lot of superfluous waffle – I think a lot of adult wannabe writers will get just as much from this as kids!

NetGalley eARC: 143 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 24th March 2020
Series: none
Read from 2nd-22nd March 2020

My rating: 8/10

Elements of Fiction – Walter Mosley

elements of fiction cover

“This monograph is concerned with the hope of writing a novel that transcends story in such a way as to allow the writer to plumb the depths of meaning while, at the same time, telling a good yarn.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ‘monograph’, but this is a rather lovely, personal meander through the ‘feeling’ of writing a book. It’s not a how-to, it’s not got a set of directives, but it gets into some of the deeper, wider arching thoughts behind writing a book. It’s like a conversation with a subject matter expert, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Walter Mosley previously published¬†This Year You Write Your Novel, so I suppose this is a companion piece. Not having reader the former, I can’t comment. But having read plenty of writing advice (if not taken so much of it ;)) I very much liked the approach here. You are a writer, you are writing, but this is the sort of thing that is/should be/might be going on at a deeper level.

Sections have titles such as ‘Revelation’, ‘The Novel is Bigger than Your Head’, as well as the more obvious Structure, Character, Narrative Voice, etc.

What I particularly liked was the way the author almost starts telling stories, little ‘what if’ beginnings of ideas, that he then picks apart or spins around, or in one case backs off and says ‘or I’d go this completely other way’ – but, he’s learned something about his story and his characters along the way.

“The purpose of this book has been to show by example and intention how deeply you can go into your mind, excavating a world worth the struggle, the man thousands of hours, and just the right words.”

Lovely, thought-provoking little book. Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages
First published: 2019
Series: could be seen as a follow up to This Year You Write Your Novel
Read from 2rd-11th September 2019

My rating: 8/10

Indite: a notebook crafted for writers – Adam Simone, Helen Savore

I love notebooks. I mean РLOVE notebooks. I have a huge stash and best intentions to use some before I buy any more, but that would go out of the window in a heartbeat for a physical copy of Indite.

The word means ‘write or compose’, in case you’re wondering, which is exactly what this book is for:¬†custom made for writers, this “notebook with a purpose” is intended to be a “work in progress guide and historical record for your work’s progress”.

It’s split into three sections: craft, scratch, and productivity.

‘Craft’ is about building the foundations of your novel (if it’s a novel you’re planning; I’ll assume!), the plot and characters and so forth. You’re prompted to write your ‘Big Idea’ (a few examples are given, e.g. “a self-aware dog”), ‘Pitch’ (one sentence – go!), and explore your ‘what’ – what is the unknown you’re exploring in your story? What kind of structure and/or device are you using – here’s some blank space to ‘brainstorm’.

At first I thought putting these upfront was a little too soon – especially for the pitch – but the end of the section does have sections for query, hook, basic info etc – so actually I see why the split.¬†You might prefer to fill these sections in later, but actually it’s really useful to have an idea – and written down, not just in your head – of what you intend the story to be. Referring back to this when you get a bit lost in the ‘saggy middle’ is invaluable! Besides, you can always change it later, right?!

Next comes several blank form pages for character sheets and ‘interview’ prompts, and settings sheets – all excellent things to think about, and have as a reference for later. There’s also a blank graph to ‘visualise momentum’ – i.e. plot narrative flow against pacing, looking for¬†anyplace your story drags. To be honest, I felt this page needed a lot more¬†explanation – it’s nice to have it there, but I would have to go look up how to make use out of it.

The middle section (‘Scratch’) is largely a collection of blank pages,¬†several lined and then several dotted. A few of these have prompts, e.g. “Your character opens a door and…”, “Write a story in 100 words or less including these four words…”, “Draw a map that would be relevant to your character”, etc.

The final ‘Productivity’ section includes some writing session logs, space for a to-do list, and asks you to answer some important questions, e.g.: why are you working on this project? What parts of your craft do you want to improve? I really like this: it’s not just¬†plotting or examining your characters, it’s about YOU, the writer, too. I have a feeling reading the answers to these would be highly motivational once the initial shiny glamour has worn off, and the going gets tougher.

I was initially a bit cynical about this book, given it’s 90% white space, really. I’d also have to suggest that it really doesn’t work so well in eBook/electronic format. However,¬†even just reading through (rather than filling it in), I completely came around to the idea of having this kind of log for a writing project. It asks some really great questions, reminds you of several important areas to consider for a project, and generally just felt kind of exciting – a blank map to be filled out, as you start on your writer’s journey!

Very glad I got to have a look, thanks to NetGalley, and looking forward to getting my hands on a physical copy.

NetGalley eARC: ~206 pages
First published: 2017 (expected in May)
Series: Notebooks with a Purpose (www.atomandink.com)
Read from 3rd-10th February 2017

My rating: 8/10

Write Your Novel This Summer – Tish Heath

Sort of NaNoWriMo extreme edition, this takes the whole writing, editing, and publishing journey down to 4 months (guessing author isn’t in the UK if they have a 4 month summer! ūüėČ )

I really can’t agree with the tone, that anyone can and should just self-publish something they spat out in 120 days. Yes, the point that you can and should encourage yourself to tell the story you want to is fine, but there are more than plenty rubbish reads out there to show that a little care and attention is no bad thing.

The advice about not taking things too seriously is kind of okay, but I don’t think editing should happen immediately, or in one mad pass over a month or two. What’s the rush?! Wouldn’t you rather write something vaguely worthwhile and polished?! The author of this little pamphlet would denounce me as a snob, but so be it:¬†poorly edited scribbles are okay-ish for blogs, but I hold actual books in better respect.

kindle: 21 pages
Finished 14th July 2015

My rating: 1/10