Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Crank It Out! by C. S. Lakin  

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Review: Crank It Out! by C. S. Lakin  

I’m a long-time fan of C.S. Lakin’s website, Live, Write, Thrive, where she shares helpful articles about the craft of writing. Her book Writing the Heart of Your Story is one of the best writing books I’ve ever read. When I saw she’d written a book about productivity for writers, I knew I must buy it.

In Crank It Out! The Surefire Way to Become a Super-Productive Writer, Lakin identifies the Productivity ABCs: attitude, biology, and choices. How you handle these three factors determines how much you can accomplish. She says, “Time does not equal productivity. The trick is to get the most ‘productive’ bang from each minute you write or engage in any writing-related activity.”

Lakin cautions that if you don’t have the skills necessary for writing, you can’t be a productive writer, but you can apply the productivity tools to mastering the craft.

Crank it out

In regard to attitude, she recommends you examine your mindset. If you have excuses for your current lack of results, if you’re casting blame on the other people in your life, your attitude is causing your low productivity. She tells the stories of people who managed to write and publish books under less than desirable writing conditions. She quotes Yoda (from Star Wars): “There is no try. Do.

In her discussion of biology, Lakin asks you to take cues from your body and also to enhance your health. If you always crave a nap at 3:00, that’s not your best writing time. She explains how to track your energy levels to find when your most productive time is. And she provides evidence about how good sleep, diet, and exercise habits impact your output.

In talking about choices, Lakin encourages you to retrain your brain for optimum focus. She suggests some habits that will boost your enjoyment of life and also make you more productive, such as journaling and reading for pleasure. She also suggests streamlining your routines to help raise your productivity. I especially like her Chapter 10 on combatting distractions and Chapter 11 on self-sabotage.

I have over-simplified the scope of Crank It Out. It is full of helpful information to help you accomplish more in your writing and in life in general. It is well worth reading, and I know I will be rereading it every few years.

Review of Aimless Love by Billy Collins

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Review of Aimless Love by Billy Collins

I recently read a list of recommended books that included the entry any book of poetry by Billy Collins.

Hmm, I thought. I don’t know the poems of Billy Collins.

So I immediately surfed over to Amazon and browsed through the selections by Collins, and chose a used (like new) copy of Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.
Billy Collins is a former Poet Laureate of the United States who also served a term as Poet Laureate of the State of New York. He has written ten books of poetry. I can’t remember who wrote the article that recommended him, but I am forever in his debt.

A well-written poem can transport you to another place or time, can help you experience someone else’s emotions, can make you see a familiar object with new eyes. Collins’ poetry does all those things brilliantly.

I have to share a poem:

Absence
by Billy Collins

This morning as low clouds
skidded over the spires of the city

I found next to a bench
in a park an ivory chess piece—

339px-Chess_piece_-_White_knight Michael Maggs

Photo by Michael Maggs; edited

the white knight as it turned out—
and in the pigeon-ruffling wind

I wondered where all the others were,
lined up somewhere

on their red and black squares,
many of them feeling uneasy

about the salt shaker
that was taking his place,

and all of them secretly longing
for the moment

when the white horse
would reappear out of nowhere

and advance toward the board
with his distinctive motion,

stepping forward, then sideways
before advancing again,

the same moves I was making him do
over and over in the sunny field of my palm.

Can’t you just hear the pigeon-ruffling wind? And I love the personification of the other chess pieces, uneasy about the substitute colleague; and the mention of the way the knight has to move. The poem delights me each time I read it.51TbLKa6oYL

Cleverness resides in this book, as well as mocking the way people express themselves, and serious gripes about growing old. Some of the poems don’t move me at all, but most insist I read them a second time, and a third, and then pause to ponder.

Guest Post: How Writers Should Handle Bad Reviews by Lev Raphael

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Thank you to Lev Raphael for the following great advice, which was previously published on A Writer’s Path.

A Writer's Path

by Lev Raphael

Don’t tweet that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves exile to Chechnya or at least a lifetime of bad sex and lukewarm meals. It’ll only make you seem nutty, and most people won’t know about the review until you tell them anyway.

Don’t make snarky, veiled remarks about this reviewer when you’re interviewed, because sulking and bitterness will just end up making you come off as a crank who should get a life or see a shrink.

View original post 289 more words

Book Review: Old Broads Waxing Poetic

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A few years ago, Julie Kemp Pick, inspired by a poem by Susan Flett Swiderski, came up with the idea to create an anthology of poetry written by women of a certain age. Together, they compiled Old Broads Waxing Poetic from their own verses and the work of six other poets.

I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I bought a copy, compelled by the wonderful cover image. It sat in my study for a couple of years, forgotten, until I recently came across it again.Old Broads Waxing Poetic

The poems range in quality from okay to delightful. I’ve already shared one poem from this book. Here are a couple of my other favorites:

Lilacs and Love
by Connie Biltz

“Nothing says spring like a lilac breeze,”
Mom closed her eyes, smiled, and sighed.
The scent would come drifting in,
with curtains billowing and windows wide.

My mother gathered them by the armful,
bunches of lilac blooms with a fragrance that was heaven sent.
She took them to my grandma every Mother’s Day,
sharing her love, showing her gratitude, knowing how much it meant.

She loved lilacs too, my mother did,
and she was glad we had plenty to spare.
It doubled her joy for them, I think,
knowing she was able to share.

Grandma would bury her nose in the lilacs,
and breathe in the heady scent too.
She arranged them carefully in a milk glass vase,
and there was one thing I always knew.

Grandma loved me, and my mom did too,
so fierce and wide and deep.
Remembering those lilacs they shared
is a memory I’ll always keep.

Forever the sight of a lilac bush,
or the hint of its fragrance in the air,
will remind me of those two ladies before me,
who had lilacs and love to spare.

lilacs-close-up-600x400That poem hits me right in the memories. A huge lilac bush grew just outside the kitchen window of the house I grew up in. On May evenings, as my mother washed dishes and I dried them, the breeze coming through the open screen carried the fragrance of lilacs, which we both loved. Though my parents didn’t particularly care for cut flowers (they felt flowers belonged in the garden), on Mother’s Day there was usually a large vase of lilac branches on the kitchen table.

GOODBYE, LEFT BREAST
(ODE TO A MASTECTOMY)
by Fran Fischer

I just thought I’d like to say goodbye
As you go to that medical waste disposal in the sky.
Say hi to my tonsils and have no fears.
We’ll all get back together in a few years.

You’ve know me the seventy-nine years of my life.
You saw me as a teen, and then a wife.
Your first job was attracting men
And next you were a breastaurant for my children.
When the doors of the milkbar finally closed
You went back to a purely decorative mode.
Which was fine, until last week
When you (and other parts) became antique.
I no longer attract young men of twenty,
But that’s all right, because I’ve had plenty.
And as for that other use, well, we all know
The odds of me nursing again are low.
But it’s in my nature to be a little sappy,
And with or without you I’ll keep on being happy.
Most would count this a loss when it comes to my score.
Will I miss you? A little. Do I need you? No more!
I will be losing some symmetry,
On this I think we can both agree.
I may tilt to one side as I walk through town
But I’ll try to adjust and not fall down.

Yet I’m not through having fun
And lifting my face to the warmth of the sun.
And being friends and laughing (I’ll show you)
So ta ta, left ta-ta, it was nice to know you!

I’d never thought it was possible to make cancer surgery humorous.Old Broads Waxing Poetic

Is this book worth buying? Yes. Not every poem will resonate with you, but these sweet ladies are not trying to get rich or famous. They are donating all the proceeds from this book to CARE International. Go ahead and buy it already. It’s only $9.99 at for the paperback on Amazon, only $2.99 for the Kindle edition.

Review: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

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Review: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

When I read How to Write Funny last year, I was disappointed to find that many of the writers who are considered geniuses of comedy aren’t very funny to me.

So I perused all the books on my shelves and thought about who I consider funny. I like cerebral humor. I like wry, twisted observation.

I came up with two authors: Anne Lamott (see my review of Bird by Bird), and Sarah Vowell.

Sarah_Vowell by Tammy Lo

Photo by Tammy Lo

If you’re not familiar with Vowell, she was a popular contributor to This American Life on NPR, and the author of many commentaries on American history and culture, and the voice of Violet in the animated movie The Incredibles. I saw her speak in person at a writers conference many years ago.

Assassination Vacation is a cerebral and wry account of a marathon pilgrimage Vowell took to various sites connected with the murders of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, accompanied on various legs by a friend, her sister Amy, and/or her (then three-year-old) nephew Owen.

How could that possibly be funny?

Vowell makes it so. Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation in the book:

Bennet asked, “You know that Kevin Bacon game?”

“The one where he can be connected to every other movie star?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon. No matter what we’re talking about, you will always bring the conversation back to a president getting shot.”

He was right…Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.

Assassination VacationOh. I almost recognize myself in that exchange.

Vowell collects interesting but random facts and shares them with us. For example, “Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll.”

Here is how Vowell describes the tour guide who leads her through the Oneida Community, a former cult commune in New York, and briefly the home of Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of James Garfield:

…Joe Valesky, a retired Oneida native who taught high school American history for thirty-six years, gives me a guided tour.  Someday, I hope to be just like him. There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the must thrilling phrases in the English language: “It was on this spot…” My fantasy is to one day become a docent.

Did I mention I love nerds, being one myself?

Vowell is annoyed when while trying to find the place where a particular event happened, there is no marker:

I am pro-plaque. New York is lousy with them, and I love how spotting a plaque can jazz up even the most mundane errand. Once I stepped out of a deli on Third Avenue and turned the corner to learn I had just purchased gum near the site of Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree. For a split second I had fallen through a trapdoor that dumped me out in New Amsterdam, where in 1647 the peg-legged Dutch governor planted a tree he brought over from Holland; until a fatal wagon accident, it bore fruit for more than two hundred years. To me, every plaque, no matter what words are inscribed on it, says the same magic informative thing: Something happened! The gum cost a dollar, but the story was free.

Sarah_Vowell by Loren-zo

Photo by Loren-zo

And her writing is so picturesque: “…the McKinley National Monument in Canton is a domed edifice on top of a hill. It’s a gray granite nipple on a fresh green breast of grass.” Tell me you didn’t smile when you read that.

Sarah Vowell loves history, and she has the knack of making it interesting to those who might rather stick needles in their eyes than read about past tragedies. You may not think a book about presidential murders could be entertaining or actually funny, but Assassination Vacation is.

What about you? Do you like history? Have you read anything by Sarah Vowell or heard her speak? Share your opinions and insights in the comments below.

Review: Writing the Heart of Your Story by C.S. Lakin

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Review: Writing the Heart of Your Story by C.S. Lakin

I read a lot of writing books. This is one of the best I’ve ever read.

I’ve long been a big fan of C.S. Lakin’s website, Live Write Thrive. So when a deal came along for the Kindle edition of Writing the Heart of Your Story: The Secret to Crafting an Unforgettable Novel, I ordered it.

The books we remember years after we finish the last page are the ones that connect with us on an emotional level. Lakin’s book takes us on a journey to discover what’s at the heart of the story we’re writing, and how to make that heart connection with the reader.

The thirty chapters of the book are divided into five sections, defining heart, and explaining how to heighten it in your characterization, plot and theme, scenes, and more.writing the heart

Lakin encourages writers to put a lot of thought into the very first page of the novel. She’s devised a checklist of 13 items that should appear on page one. The list turns some common writing advice upside down, but will compel the reader to turn to page two. “Think about the emotion, feeling, or sensation you want to evoke in your reader…establishing immediately…the drives, desires, needs, fears, frustrations of your protagonist. Not only do you need to show her in conflict…you also need to reveal her heart, hint at her spiritual need, show her vulnerability, and what obstacles are standing in her way. In the first scene? Oh yes.”

Lakin is a plotter rather than a pantser, but she plots strategically, planning how she will impact the reader before she even starts her manuscript. She tells us to RUE: resist the urge to explain. She challenges writers to take out all but maybe three short sentences of backstory.

Lakin also sends us to our bookshelves to reread our favorite books and analyze them for the elements she presents. There we find proof her strategies work.

She shares hints she’s gleaned from other writing books that help writers identify elements of heart. For example, she recommends Elizabeth George’s practice of free writing about her characters. “Call it muse or divine inspiration, but freewriting, like journaling, can draw from a deep well of experience and emotion. Things float to the surface of the mind when you do this, and I will guarantee that some of your best ideas for your character will come through this exercise. You are delving into the mystery of your character, and this exercise will bring out their secrets.” (I can’t wait to try that idea!)

I love the questions Lakin raises in Chapter 19 for building conflict and complications:

  • What’s the problem about? How can I make it bigger? If I take my protagonist out of the story, what does that problem look like in universal terms?

  • How can I make this problem the protagonist has harder? How can I make things worse in the outer world and in his personal life?

  • How can I make the effects of this problem worse for other people as well? How can I broaden the scope of this problem so it affects a greater scope?

  • What does this problem push people to do that they wouldn’t normally do? How can I blow that up bigger and make them do worse things?

  • How can I make it harder for my protagonist to solve this problem? How can I raise the stakes so more is at risk? If I have just one thing at risk, what other things can I add and put at risk?

Lakin gives special consideration to the setting of each scene:

Where is the best place I can put my character to have this scene unfold and lead to the important moment revealed in this scene? Rather than pick something off the top of your head, which is what a lot of writers do in their rush to put a scene down, you will find that if you deliberately and judiciously choose a setting that will best serve the interests of your plot and your character’s need for that scene, you will have a much more powerful novel.

While reading Writing the Heart of Your Story, I found myself running to the computer to rewrite sections of my work-in-progress.

I’m currently reading Lakin’s novel Intended for Harm. It’s interesting to see how she uses her strategies in her own work.

Writing the Heart of Your Story is a book I intend to reread often—whenever I start writing a new novel and whenever I start editing it.

Review: The Story of With by Allen Arnold

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Review: The Story of With by Allen Arnold

In January, I attended a writers’ mini-conference given by Christian Writers of the West. The guest speaker was Allen Arnold, former fiction editor for Thomas Nelson. He spoke at length about inspiration and creativity and how the desire to create comes to us from God as an invitation to closer intimacy with Him.

Arnold’s presentation was so refreshing and invigorating and so full of ideas I wanted to explore further, that I bought two copies of his book, The Story of With: A Better Way to Live, Love, and Create. One was for myself, and the other for my friend Tom, who is struggling to finish writing a very important book. I gave it to him a few days later.the story of WITH

In the meantime, I began reading it.

A large part of The Story of With is an allegory, the story of Mia, a girl whose father disappeared long ago. I found the allegory kind of hokey.  Each chapter ended with an explanation of that part of the allegory, which was necessary—I wouldn’t have understood the allegory without the author’s commentary. Which made me wonder—why would Arnold devote so much time and energy to the allegory if it didn’t clarify his premise (and instead required him to interpret it for the reader)? I regretted giving Tom the book before reading it myself.

But before I finished the book, I saw Tom again, and he shared that he had read the book straight through, moved to tears because it affected him so deeply. When I mentioned my disappointment with the allegory, he said for him, it didn’t detract from the message.

These passages from The Story of With especially resonated with me:

  • [God’s] motive in giving you specific talents isn’t primarily so you’ll be productive…It is so your desires can find their fulfillment in Him…God doesn’t need your help as much as He wants your heart (page 120).

  • The door will find you when you are ready (page 205).

  • True success means you create with the Creator, in fellowship with others, as you engage with the community your creation serves. With. With. With (page 213).

  • Living like this ushers in an atmosphere of abundance and freedom. There’s no longer a need to try and control your Story. You know God has even bigger plans than you for what’s ahead. So you are content to ride with Him wherever the path may lead (page 243).

I recommend this book for creative people, but with two caveats. First, if you have no use for God, The Story of With will make no sense to you; it will just be jibberish. (But if you are searching for God, you can find Him here.) Second, if you are looking for the way to make lots of money or fame from your creations, that goal is not addressed here. But if you desire freedom, high quality of creative life, and intimacy with God, you must read this.

Have you already read The Story of With? What is your opinion of it? Share in the comments below. And if you read the book later, come back and let us know what you think.

 

Creative Juice #36

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Creative Juice #36

A baker’s dozen of links to delight you with beauty and creativity and personal growth.

  1. Fabulous review of a children’s book about poetry.
  2. Great abstract art project for children or adults. You’ll need colored tissue paper.
  3. A totally different way to enhance your creativity.
  4. The argument for output.
  5. Quilters: do you have a bunch of “orphan blocks”? Here’s what to do with them (and an idea for accumulating more).
  6. Literary nerd types will love this analysis.
  7. An exercise for writers who want to find their voice.
  8. Pretty art journal pages.
  9. This quirky, artsy hotel is located right next to the Irish Cultural Center, where I folk dance. It was vacant for a long time, and recently reopened.
  10. I’m not wild about tattoos, but these are really interesting.
  11. Beautiful Iranian architecture.
  12. The virtues of mini-quilts.
  13. Beautiful cakes.

Creative Juice #32

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Creative Juice #32

Thirteen articles to ponder.

Review of poemcrazy: freeing your life with words

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Review of poemcrazy: freeing your life with words

I bought poemcrazy at Borders (Remember Borders Books? Sigh.) when my oldest daughter entered Bennington College in 1996. Poetry was one of her areas of study (I think it was her original major), and I thought she would like it. But as I flipped through it, I decided I’d read it first, then send it to her.

PoemcrazyI started reading it often, always meaning to try out the exercises, but never getting around to it. Meanwhile, Carly changed majors several times, graduated from Bennington with a degree in German, then got a Masters from NYU in English as a second language, earned a second Masters from Baruch College, and started doctoral work. I’ve never sent her the book.

Finally, last January I began a year-long love affair with poemcrazy: freeing your life with words, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, which has resulted in twenty-seven babies (poems) so far.

Poemcrazy is an informal textbook on creating free verse. Wooldridge is a nationally known teacher of poetry workshops to students of all ages. She is more interested in playing with words to release their emotional content than in adhering to strict form or rhyme constraints.

Wooldridge advocates collecting words in a wordpool. She likes writing individual words on tickets, like those used at carnivals. Throughout the book, Wooldridge makes suggestions for additions to the pool.

I write my words on quartered 3×5 cards, color coded: blue for adjectives, yellow for verbs, orange for nouns, green for colors, and pink for feelings. I rubberband each color together and store them in a Ziplock baggie in my desk drawer.

The wordpool can be used to generate poems. For me, one or two cards drawn from each category create weird juxtapositions that ignite bizarre images and bring long-repressed memories back into my consciousness, releasing floodgates of emotion—a perfect breeding ground for poetry.

writing-helloquence

Using stories from her life and examples from her workshops, Wooldridge nudges the reader toward creativity:

…Erica [a high school student] stared at a perfect, round dandelion gone to seed. When Stacie knocked some seeds, off, Erica went outside for another. She wanted a perfect sphere. I asked her to look closely, name it and then describe what the dandelion looked like, reminding her that close observation is important in poetry.

Then I asked her to think about a quality of the dandelion that could enrich her life. I felt discouraged and I was pushing her. I asked her to begin, What does it look like? What does it look like that it isn’t? When Erica finally wrote about her dandelion, I was reminded of the power of comparison (or simile and metaphor) to expand our sense of possibility in ourselves and in everyday objects.

Wish domedandelion
it looks like someone shot
an arrow in the moon
or even a golf ball on a green tee.
A domed jungle gym
with small people growing out.
An octopus tarred and feathered.
It smells like starbursts…
I can smell the arrow
it flew by so fast.
Bring me the light touch of a bubble
the freedom of air
the firmness and strength of a rock.

Before I read this book, I didn’t think I could write poetry.

Now I know I can.

Poemcrazy was first released in 1996. It is now in its twenty-sixth printing.