Tag Archives: review

Bizzaro Book Review: The Abyss Above Us by Ryan Notch

Many times when I set out to write one of these reviews I worry about how it’s going to impact you guys at the other end. I’m a critical kind of reader, someone who obsesses with stories and how they could be made better. So naturally, its exceedingly rare that I’m going to gush about a story without saying something negative.

That said, I want you all to understand that these days I almost never write a review for a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone else.

And there are times when the part of me that wants you to read the books I recommend really worries that the analytical part of me making its critiques and criticisms will convince you that they really aren’t worth your time or money. This is one of those times.

The Abyss Above Us has its flaws; and you should read it anyway.

I suppose I should say right from the get go that this is a nerd’s book. That is neither criticism nor praise, by the way. It just is. There is jargon in this book, abstract concepts, references to computer programming and black hat hackers, and — to top it all off — a throwaway reference to the idea that beautiful women only want to date jerks. And yet somehow very little of that gets in the way of the actual story. If you get the computer programming and networking references, great; if not, there’s plenty here to keep your interest. I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent individual and even I wasn’t able to follow some of the jargon and technical talk.

That said, it never came across as talking down to the reader. Much like the unbelievably convoluted time travel film Primer you don’t actually have to be able to understand what the characters are talking about, to understand what’s happening. And rather than take away from the story, the use of jargon adds a gripping air of authenticity to the tale.

The tale is this: a young IT professional named Shaw is called in to solve a problem with the local university’s radio telescope. As it turns out the ancient computer network that runs the telescope overrides the whatever the equipment is supposed to be doing every night at one in the morning and points it at the same seemingly random patch of sky. Only it turns out there’s something special about this particular patch of sky: it is dark, utterly devoid of stars or anything else.

Our intrepid IT hero traces the problem through the network until he discovers something amazing. A room with a single computer inside, walled up for years, a thick matt of black hairy mold growing over every surface in the room. And every night at one in the morning, the computer receives a signal from that dark point in space.

The signal becomes the focus of interest among the astronomers and scientists at the college, all of them enthralled by its strange sound, a sound that resonates just on the edge of understanding. And then…

Well I don’t want to spoil too much for you. But suffice it to say that what I just described was only the opening of this story. It gets weirder. Lots weirder.

The greatest strength of The Abyss Above Us is the way it maintains a sense of mystery. There is almost never a moment in which the reader is not compelled to ask himself, “Yes, but what happens next?” I’ve come to believe that mystery is the greatest driving force of fiction — weirdly enough the stories that get this wrong most often are actual mysteries — and it’s clear that Ryan Notch gets it.

Now for the bad. I haven’t mentioned up until this point that this is a self-published book. And I’m only mentioning it now because the problems The Abyss Above Us has aren’t problems that most traditionally published books have to deal with.

For one thing: typos. Now let me moderate that. There aren’t misspelled words on every page, okay? I will not put up with that kind of laziness. It’s clear the author worked hard to make his work look professional. Unfortunately it’s also clear that he didn’t know the difference between the spelling of “dying” and “dyeing”. He gets that one wrong literally every time, and in a story where characters dye left and right it got to the point where I was joking with myself about how this story should have been set in a textile processing plant. That’s not the only mistake, just the most prevalent, and it’s a great example of why authors need competent beta-readers. We all make mistakes. An extra set of eyes never hurts.

The second issue I had with The Abyss Above Us is more fundamental. The first half of the book is phenomenal, but later, particularly the latter part of the second act, the story starts to feel repetitive. More than that, I almost got the feeling that the author was beginning to get tired of the story at that point. The prose grows weaker, “be” verbs water down sentences, the whole thing has this sense of sagging. That’s the best way I know how to put it.

And again, a another pair of eyes could have helped. A decent editor could have helped the author tighten up those sagging sentences, and break up the monotony the plot falls into near the end of the second act.

I want to reiterate: you should read this book. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fresh and compelling, in spite of any faults it may have. It blends science fiction and horror beautifully, pulling the best traits of both genres together in a way that I’ve seen very few stories pull off.

In the off-chance that Ryan Notch should happen to read this review let me just say, “Dude, “dying” =/= “dyeing”. Do a find/replace and you’re golden on, like, 90% of your typo issues.

The rest of you, go buy The Abyss Above Us. Seriously. It’s awesome.

Bizzaro Internet TV Review: The Booth at the End

I’m gonna start right off the bat and say that I absolutely despise the term “internet TV”. In my mind there is a sharp line of demarcation between television and the internet, so smooshing the two together like that just feels wrong. The problem is the term “web original” doesn’t quite do the job either, because it raises the question, original what? Original book? Original movie? Original steampunk origami sculpture? Perhaps we need some new words for this type of media. I propose we adopt the term Moving Images Propagated In the Digital Ether, or MIPIDE for short. This is the new thing. Tell your friends.

This naming confusion highlights just how odd something like The Booth at the End really is. Not that people haven’t put their own shows directly online before, but many of those feel at least a little home-spun, whereas The Booth at the End, looks like the real deal. In an era where more an more people consume the majority of their entertainment via streaming videos, The Booth at the End is a harbinger of the idea that professionally produced content can be distributed exclusively online.

But frankly I’m not writing this review to talk about the changing culture of entertainment. Because no matter what medium or method of propagation you choose for your fiction, the core question remains: is it any good?

For The Booth at the End, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

The Booth at the End is as clear an example I have ever seen of how a simple concept and minimalist execution can lead to an incredibly complex and nuanced story. The premise is this: Somewhere in middle America there is a nondescript diner. If you enter this diner and walk all the way down to the final booth you will find a man sitting, waiting. If you tell this man what you want, literally anything your heart desires, he can make it happen. For a price.

No name is ever given to the man who sits in the booth at the end assigning task after task out of his well-worn notebook, guiding his clients toward the things they claim to want. At first blush, the Faustian nature of his bargains and his seemingly supernatural abilitiy to make wishes come true casts him in the light of a demon in human form, perhaps even the devil himself. Yet, as the show progresses we begin to see sparks of humanity, flashes of frailty, insinuations that the nameless man is not the chessmaster of the game, but rather another piece on the board, and his clients are not the only ones who want something, nor are they the only ones willing to pay a terrible price to get it.

The Booth at the End is about the people who come to this man, the things they want, and the prices they pay. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. Because rather than being a show about people having their wishes fulfilled, it is instead an exploration of the nature of desire. It asks the question, do you really want what you think you want? And how far would you be willing to go to get it?

Because while the man in the booth at the end can give you the thing you ask, the cost is higher than you can imagine. The price for each wish takes the shape of a task that must be performed, and it is in the execution of these various tasks that the meat of the story lies. Some of the tasks are terrifying on a purely moral level, a man asked to kill a girl in exchange for healing his son’s cancer, an elderly woman charged with building a bomb to set off in a crowded restaurant so that her husband can regain his memory. Other tasks, seemingly less horrific, lead those chosen to complete them through the darkest chambers of their own hearts, forcing them to face unsettling truths about themselves and the world around them. It is this revelatory experience that lies at the core of The Booth at the End, men and women from every walk of life coming to terms with who they truly are.

If you’re looking for something different, something with depth, something that will challenge you to think, then you can’t afford to miss the small marvel that is The Booth at the End. The entire series is available to watch for free on Hulu.

And while you watch, ask yourself this question: how far would you go to get the thing you want the most?

Bizzaro Book Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I struggled for quite some time trying to figure out how to start this review. And I do mean struggled. There were unicorns involved. You don’t want to know.

The problem I face is that while some books are door stoppers, Reamde is closer to being an actual door, and there is much to both love and hate in its vast pantheon of pages. So for the sake of simplicity I’m going to start with the beginning. Not the opening scene, mind you, I’m talking about the first thing you’ll see when you lay eyes on this book. The cover.

Now do my eyes deceive me or does that word there were the title should be say Reamde? It does? So would it then be a safe assumption to believe that something called Reamde is going to be central to the plot of the book? Yes, I thought so too.

But. It. Isn’t. (Due to the sad limitations of typography you’re going to have to imagine me saying this through clenched teeth.)

Reamde, a computer virus designed to infect a World of Warcraft-style game call T’rain is a complete MacGuffin. It’s like a flint that lights the story’s fire, but does not ever actually become part of that fire.

Now normally I wouldn’t mind this so much. But in a sense Reamde is for me an emblem of the biggest problem with the whole book.

See, Neal Stephenson has a niche of sorts. He’s a writer for geeks. There is nothing at all wrong with this. But because he has begun his career as a keeper of the keys to literary nerdvana I imagine he feels some pressure to continue playing to that audience as much as he can. Which is the only reason I can fathom for his insistence on including large portions of his book to detailing the workings and operations of a computer game that has nothing to do with the actual story.

And I’m not talking about a few throwaway references here and there. I’m talking  about nearly a third of a thousand-plus-page book being devoted to something that never advances the story one iota. And the frustrating thing is that because of the bulk of time given to the T’rain/Reamde plotline, it feels like its going to matter. It feels important.

I was ready for it to be important. My writing brain was doing all kinds of geeking out wondering how Neal Stephenson was going to tie all this together at the end. And then he didn’t. Instead after hundreds of pages devoted to T’rain, the whole thread finally peters out with one of the characters actually saying, “Well, that was a colossal waste of time.”

Which is a shame, because if you push aside all that nonsense about digital terrain creation and using gaming for airport security there is a really good book in there. It’s got gangsters and hackers and terrorists; it’s got spies and Russian security consultants and gun nuts so far right-wing that the Tea Party wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’s got twists like you wouldn’t believe, cliff hangers that will leave you gasping for breath, and and the coolest bad guy this side of Darth Vader.

In short, this is a fat book with a skinny book inside trying to get out. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Just take my advice and skip over anything at all related to T’rain; it’s nothing more than a long and treacherous path that leads to a dead end in a valley without a view.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

You know that movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carry has his memory of a bad relationship erased? Only as he travels backward through his memories he realizes that there were some genuinely good times that came before the bad, and that those times were worth enduring the bad for?

Oh you haven’t seen that one yet? Um…spoilers?

Anyway, that’s exactly how reading The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was. In the end it left a bad taste in my mouth, but thinking back over the whole experience there were some genuinely wonderful things to be found.

The book’s strength is in it’s plot and structure. As a writer still grappling with good structure myself, reading this book was something of an education. Each chapter raises the stakes to a new level in such a compelling manner that you find yourself wondering how the author could possibly top it.

The writing is…there. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. Hunt uses words like a framer uses wood. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to hold the house up. And in a sense his minimalist approach to prose serves the story well. Once you let yourself become enveloped in the plot the words don’t distract from it.

Of course possibly the greatest strength of the book is the sheer force of creativity brought to bear in creating a world with a thousand miriad wonders. This book has dragon things, steam powered self-aware robots, a hive-mind forest, and…well I won’t go on for sake of time, but trust me: there’s more.

The problems arise in the latter parts of the book. After spending more than four hundred pages on one quest, the protaganists goals are completely reversed. Worse yet, one character who’s delightfully ambiguous moral position made him one of my favourites, is turned into a cartoonish villian with the speed of flipping a switch. Because of these issues I was scarely able to enjoy the climactic third act at all, which is a shame, because, as I said before, the vast majority of this book was excellent.

Let this be a lesson to all of you writers out there. Endings matter. A lot.

Craft a compelling story, but tack on an unsatisfying ending and you’re going to end up with disappointed readers.

Ultimately, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was good. I don’t regret reading it. As a writer I found it held valuable lessons for me, both positive and negative. As a reader I really enjoyed the story and the fantastic world Mr. Hunt created from the spare parts of a hundred other mythologies. But then there’s that ending.

I won’t make any definitive recommendations here. Instead I’ll just say that if this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy you probably will. If not, then give it a pass.

The Viral View

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that most Friday’s I do a book review. Basically this review involves me talking about whatever I happen to have just finished reading at the time.

But lately I’ve been thinking about reviews a lot. Most people would look at a review of a book or a movie as a simple examination of the works strengths and weaknesses, a condensed rundown to give the reader some idea of whether or not they might like this particular book or movie.

But lately I’ve started to think of reviews as something else: viruses.

Okay, there’s no need to back away like that, and…whoa, where did that straight-jacket come from. Have you been carrying that with you the whole time?

I’m not crazy. Well, not with this anyway. Just hear me out.

Reviews are often tagged as being “spoiler free”. This means that the reviewer has not included any information that would “spoil” the readers enjoyment of the work being reviewed. But is any review, truly spoiler free?

Because I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I watch a movie or read a book after having read a review of that book I’m watching for the things the reviewer pointed out.

Weak third act structure? Yep.

Poorly developed characters? Check that one off the list.

Cunning use of white space? Got it.

Except those ideas aren’t my ideas. They’re not my opinions. I’ve been infected with the reviewer’s point of view.

It’s possible I might have made those same assesments on my own, but now I’ll never know for sure. Because I let myself be infected with the virus.

In truth this idea applies to far more than just movie reviews. We interact with others on a daily basis, taking recommendations, sharing opinions, transfering information. When you get right down to it none of the ideas in our heads belong to us. They’ve all come from somewhere external.

Immanuel Kant hypothesized that ideas like time and space existed “a priori” outside of external influence, because, he reasoned, thinking would be impossible without them. But with all due respect to Mr. Kant, he’s never lived in a universe without time. Simply because neither he nor any of us is capable of imagining how thought might occur in such place does not mean that such a thing is impossible.

In fact the idea for this very blog post, came from listening to someone else talking about how they tried to watch movies without any preconceptions and work out wether they liked it for themselves.

You might think that I’m leading up to saying that I’m going to discontinue the Bizzaro Book Review and let you all discover your own books without preconceptions.

But if you think that, then you obviously don’t know me that well. Because seriously? I have a chance to infect all of your brains with my ideas? Get me a ticket on that train.

Call up the CDC and tell them there’s a madman in Florida cooking up idea bugs in his garage. Make sure you scream as loudly as you can.

And don’t mind the men with the special jacket with the long sleeves. They’re only there to help.

Say Hello to My Little Friend: the Wonders of the AlphaSmart 3000

There isn’t any special equipment required to be a writer. There’s no super secret pencil and paper combination that makes the best stories, no ultra exclusive word processor of the gods that you must use in order to craft a gripping tale.

But let’s be real here, you’re not going to be chiseling your work into stone tablets anytime soon, and neither am I. Few of us write our stories with pen and paper anymore, and the image of the writer hunched over his typewriter, keys clacking is largely an anachronism. We use computers for the most part, because they’re both versatile and powerful.

I’ve been writing on my laptop from the very beginning, mostly because it was portable and it served my needs well enough. But over the last couple of months I’ve had my eye on something a little different.

See, I like to take my laptop to work with me, so that I can write on my lunch breaks, but it can be a pain to lug it in from my car and then back out again when I’m done always slightly terrified that someone might crowbar open my trunk and steal it. I swear to you, every time I get home and open the trunk (that’s a boot for those of you who don’t live in Awesomeville aka America) there’s a tiny moment of terror when I’m sure it will have been stolen. Also, the battery life on that thing sucks. I get MAYBE half an hour out of it before it beeps at me once and promptly shuts off without giving me so much as the chance to save my work.

So yeah. Not the most ideal piece of equipment in the world. Well today I’m here to announce that my troubles are over, and to introduce you to my little friend:

Okay, okay, stop laughing. Yes, I know it’s like a ten-year-old piece of technology. My wife  told me she used to use one when she was in grade-school.

But you know what? This baby is AWESOME. Shall we go down the list?

How about a 72 hour battery life? Check.

Ultimate portability? Yeppers.

And the best part? The twenty-five dollar price tag.

I’m telling you guys, this is my new writing machine right here. I’ve been wanting one of these babies for years. Ever since I saw an article in Popular Science about how they were being used in the jungles of Africa by scientists who were away from civilization and without power for long periods of time.

But the best part about the AlphaSmart 3000 is this: it has no wordcount feature.

Now I know what you’re all thinking. “Albert, wordcount is essential. Wordcount is god. How will we ever be able to chart our progress without the manifold blessings of wordcount?”

Well believe me when I say that at first I saw it as a drawback too. And then I started writing on the thing.

And I’m here to tell you that knowing exactly how many words you have written isn’t nearly as important as you think it is. Because once you know, then you start to set goals, and once you start to set goals, you start to feel obligated to complete those goals, and once that happens there’s a hint of drudgery starts to sneak into your writing. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

But with the AlphaSmart 3000 I don’t have to worry about all that stuff. All I have to focus on is telling the story, and so far my daily wordcount hasn’t suffered at all. If anything it’s actually gone up a little.

Bottom line, if you write on the go, I’d highly recommend this little machine to you. If you do your shopping you can find a decent price for one on ebay, and it offers a convenient and distraction free writing experience.

Overall a super piece of equipment.

Bizzaro Book Review: Scoop by Kit Frazier

We’re in dangerous waters with today’s review folks. I’ve left the safe harbour of nerdy dude fiction and ventured out over the deep and shark infested seas of…Chick Lit.

Why am I reviewing this book again? Two reasons:

1. I’m a sucker for obscure authors with a great voice.

2. I’m an even bigger sucker for ebooks with a 99 cent price point.

So, without further ado lets get on with the show.

Scoop is a book about a reporter named Cauley McKinnon who has made some…less than stellar choices in her love life which in a roundabout way has led to her working at the obituary desk of the smallest of Austin’s newspapers. And that would be Austin as in Austin, TX, a town so clearly realized in this novel that it comes to feel like a character in and of itself. In this and other things Scoop is a clear example of the old mantra, Write what you know. It was clear to me when reading the author was drawing many of the details of her fictional surroundings from real life, and that realism of setting made the story all the more believable.

The author’s writing style is both clear and compelling, which was really one of the first things that made me want to buy the book. The second reason is that from the first page the characters seem to leap off the page and into your mind.

The books characters are both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. On the one hand the main cast is strong and well developed, filled with well rounded villains and subtle flawed heroes. On the down side the supporting cast of characters, mainly represented by Cauley’s friends and family, are also fully developed. You may be wondering why I’ve put this down as a negative. The essential problem is that while this cast of miscellaneous characters are both colorful and interesting, they do almost nothing to move the plot forward. Occasionally they provide support to our heroine in her times of trouble (and Cauley McKinnon has loads of trouble on her plate) but they do very little to push the story forward which by the end of the book leaves the lot of them looking decidedly superfluous.

As to the story itself it was compelling enough as both a mystery and a romance, keeping me turning the pages till the very end. Unfortunately once I got to the end I found the resolution to both threads to be slightly underwhelming. On the one hand Cauley solves the mystery and ostensibly finds the right man for her but her happy ending feels somehow shallow and tacked on.

And of course since this book is partially a romance its time for my to insert my obligatory rant about such things here. Cauley McKinnon suffers from what I will call Bella Swan syndrome. Bella Swan syndrome is when a female character downplays her own attractiveness and then every single unattached guy she meets wants to jump her bones. And I know I’ve complained about the double standard before but I’m gonna hit it again here:

Ladies, don’t tell me you want me to love you for who you are and not what you look like and then write stories in which your heroine has guys drooling all over her because of what she looks like. Your desire to be desired is practically omnipresent in the books you write for other gals.

If you really meant what you said you would write characters that are truly unattractive, that don’t get noticed by guys, that have to prove their inner beauty over time to win the heart of the man they love. Or better yet, write a guy character who isn’t superficially handsome. If what’s the inside is so much more important than what is on the outside then why aren’t there ever any nerdy, balding, overweight male love interests in your books? (wrote the nerdy, balding, overweight male)

Okay I think that’s all the soapboxing you can handle.

In the summation Scoop is fun book with great writing and believable characters. The plot tapers off a little toward the end, but on the plus side this book has a sequel so hopefully the intrepid Cauley McKinnon will get a more satisfactory resolution in that one.

I already mentioned the 99 cent price point and Scoop is more than worth that. If you like romantic mysteries or mysterious romances this book has got you covered. You can get it for your eReader type devices here.

The Fine Art of Caring

Someone recently asked me what my vice was. At first the question took me off guard. I mean, I can’t very well tell the guy that I’m an alien overlord on the planet Chogoth and that under my cruel tyranny tens of millions of innocents have died. I tend to like to keep that kind of thing under wraps.

So I hemmed and hawed for a minute before I came up with this gem: “I like watching scathing reviews of bad movies on the internet.” Which has the added bonus of being true.

I’m not sure why I like watching people scream about how bad a movie is. I only know that for me it’s oddly compelling entertainment. But last week, I watched one review in particular that really made me mad.

In this review Matthew Buck AKA Film Brain was lambasting 2012, the disaster epic directed by the famously infamous Roland Emeric.  Now if you haven’t seen this movie, trust me its dumb. It’s fun in its way, but it’s really really DUMB.

However I found myself taking issue with the reviewer over one particular point of criticism. He complained that a film about the destruction of the earth was too focussed on one particular family. Millions of people were dying like rats, but it only seemed to matter if this one family made it out okay.

At first this seems like a legitimate complaint. After all, we see buildings collapsing and cars falling from bridges and all manner of mass destruction, such that by the end of the movie it’s clear that billions are dead. In those kinds of circumstances who cares if one family made it out alive? But from a story perspective at least, I would argue that 2012 gets this one right.

Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to care as much about huge groups of people suffering and dying as we do for individuals. For any kind of disaster to have an impact on us we need to be close to it. The closer we are, the more it affects us.

For instance, several years back a huge tsunami crashed ashore on the rim of the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people died. It was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. But I can tell you that the tornadoes that recently devastated an area of Alabama just a few miles from where I live impacted me emotionally more than the tsunami did. And if my own mother was to die in a car accident, that would affect me most of all.

Why? Because I have a personal connection to her. No, it doesn’t make strictly logical sense to care for one more than you care for thousands, but we aren’t strictly logical beings.

That’s why films like 2012 focus on families and individuals. Because those stories are the ones we care about. We connect to the world on a personal level. And the same is true with all stories. As writers we need to understand that.

All great stories are ultimately about individuals. And since we’re talking movies, I’ll tell you that my favourite example of this in recent memory is Inception. It’s a big budget action flick with mind bending twists and an eclectic cast of characters. But if you boil it all down its a story about one man trying to get home to his kids.

That’s all.

The fate of the world isn’t hanging in the balance. The earth is not being saved from destruction. But one of the reasons that Inception works is because it realizes that personal crisis matters more than global catastrophe.

That doesn’t mean that we writers can’t craft an epic story of global proportions, but we must always, always, always, remember that the personal story, the individual stakes, must matter more than the global stakes.

Give your readers a reason to connect with your protagonist as a person. Make them care about his struggle.  Everything else will fall into place.

The Jacqueline Howett Guide to Becoming a Better Buzzard

A week or so back (I honestly can’t remember; time’s fun when you’re having flies) everyone, and I mean everyone in the writing community was talking about Jacqueline Howett and her angry tirade on the Books and Pals Blog review of her book The Greek Seaman (no I’m not doing any puns. All the good ones have been used up anyway.)

It was like the rotting corpse of some animal bringing the buzzards far and wide to feast upon its stinking goodness. And before you go off mad, I’m one of those buzzards too. It’s not an insult. They’re an important necessary part of our ecological system. Fascinating creatures. For instance, did you know that the buzzard’s head lacks feathers because-

[Tangent Alert! Tangent Alert! Tangent Alert!]

Okay, okay! Keep your britches on! Anyway. The Great Jacqueline Howett Meltdown got me to thinking: Jacqueline Howett is a person.

Which hopefully everyone knows. I mean no one thinks she’s some kind of alien robot sent to sow discord on the internet or anything like that. But sometimes even though we know we don’t really know.

There’s something about distance that keeps us from seeing other people as real people. I still remember the moment when as a child we were driving down the road and I looked out at all the other cars and realized that each and every one of those people had a life every bit as real and full and complex as mine. But I also realized it was easy for us to ignore that fact because each of us was encapsulated in our own little climate controlled pod on wheels with the radio on, drowning out the our thoughts, letting us think we were the only real people in the world.

The internet is a lot like that too. Each of us sitting here at our own glowing screen interacting with others, but not really grasping the fullness of the truth that all those other words represent living, breathing, hoping individuals just like us.

I’m not here to defend Ms. Howett. I’m just here to remind you that she’s a person. She is more than the sum of her words.

Writing a book, even a bad one full of mistakes and errors is a lot of work. If you don’t believe me you should try it some time. And especially that first book…that sucker is like pulling teeth and giving birth at the same time.

Worst. Dentist appointment. Ever.

And when you’re finally done you print it all out and look at it in all of its grandeur and you think, “This is possibly the greatest thing I have ever done.” And you know what? For most of it, it probably is the greatest thing we’ve ever done.

And then someone comes along and shoots it full of holes.

It’s easy to make that person into the enemy. Because that criticism can hurt, especially at first. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or not. It doesn’t matter if the person giving the criticism is trying to help. It still takes a knife and shoves it right through our ego.

Like I said already, I’m not here to defend Ms. Howett. What she did was wrong on any number of levels.

But the next time something like this happens, think before you flame. Remember that the one on the other end of your criticism is a person too. It doesn’t mean you have to censor yourself. But maybe stop and think: “Would I be willing to say this to their face?”

Always remember to “speak the truth in love.”

Four Books Every Writer Should Read

There are no rules to writing. There is no instruction manual that will magically make us better writers. We all know this. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in reading books about the craft of writing.

A few weeks back someone asked me what books I would recommend that other writers read, and today I’m going to answer that question. These are all books that have helped me tremendously as a writer, and I believe they might help you as well.

1. The Elements of Style

Okay, so yeah, you probably saw this one coming a mile away. It’s the granddaddy of all style books, and it still retains a place of well deserved honor at the top of the heap.

I remember the first time I found The Elements of Style in the college library. I took it to a table and just started to read. It pulled me in like very few books ever have.

And I can’t explain it exactly. The book is essentially a litany of grammar rules and advice about writing well, but somehow it weaves a web of magic all it’s own that is sure to entrap anyone with a love of words.

In recent years I’ve read some criticism of The Elements of Style based on the idea that the rules and guidelines presented there are too strict, too authoritarian. While some of that criticism may have merit, it misses the larger point. The theme of the book can be boiled down into two simple words: be clear.

And that is one writing rule we would all do well to follow.

2. Self Editing for Fiction Writers

This book ruined my life. It was the very first book I picked up after I started writing in earnest and it was crammed full of useful writing advice. The problem came when I started reading fiction books after I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

I found myself saying, “Woah, hey buddy, easy on the adverbs,” and “Just say, ‘said’ already! It’s not a dirty word!” Reading this book was my first experience with the idea that writing could change the way I read.

And while Self Editing for Fiction Writers may not quite have had the same magic for me as The Elements of Style would, its simple no-nonsense advice helped set me on the right direction when it came to writing readable prose.

3. On Writing

This little memoir/writing guide isn’t quite like other writing books. It’s true that there’s some writing advice in there, but it’s a very personal kind of advice.

This isn’t a book I would recommend following to the letter. For instance Stephen King eschews the concept of outlining pretty vehemently, but that doesn’t mean you should throw out the idea of outlining; you should do what works best for you.

But what this book does provide is a view of the world though King’s own eyes, a compelling story about his own journey as a writer. In a sense On Writing is a love letter to writing itself. And for that fact alone it is well worth your time.

4. Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders (And How to Avoid Them)

This is a book I picked up sometime last year, and I absolutely loved it. There’s nothing really sensational I can say about the content of the book. Much of the advice was stuff I’d already read in other places before.

But it was so much fun to read. If you’re a beginning writer looking for a good foundation of writing principles, I highly recommend checking this book out. The author does a great job of reminding the reader that he is giving guidelines, not rules, and in some cases he even points out when doing the opposite of what he had recommended might make for a better choice.

Also, if you do not enjoy reading this book you can feed it to your dog. My dog ate this book, and he gave it five stars on the taste scale.

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So those are my top four recommendations of books writers should read. It is by no means exhaustive; there were several books I wanted to include, but didn’t for the sake of space and time.

Do you all have any suggestions for me? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and let me know what your favourite writing book is, and why.