Book review: The Successful Author Mindset

The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joanna Penn’s short book is exactly what it says–a look at how to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to live the life of a writer, through new writer tribulations, on to actual publication and then dealing with what comes after (should you be so fortunate).

As such, there is little in here about how to write, but plenty of advice on how to deal with everything from self-doubt to overzealous fans, using a Problem/Antidote format. Penn’s style (seriously, a writer named Penn? The closest I get is someone calling me “pencil neck”) is open and friendly, and she provides excerpts from her private journal to illustrate points she is making, which is a nice way of building trust with the reader. The advice is practical and pretty common sense–you’re unlikely to slap your forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” but it’s still handy to have all of these ideas collected together and presented in a way that’s easy and entertaining to absorb.

It’s also just a nice change-up to read a book about writing that is not about, well, the actual writing part.

Recommended for new writers or those on the cusp of publishing.

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Book review: Welcome to the Writer’s Life

Welcome to the Writer’s Life: How to Design Your Writing Craft, Writing Business, Writing Practice, and Reading Practice by Paulette Perhach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am continuing on my unofficial second career as not a writer, but one who reads every book about writing instead. Then writes about them.

Welcome to the Writer’s Life succeeds on a couple of fronts. First, author Paulette Perhach has an entertaining voice and regularly drops funny little zingers in with her advice without ever making it feel like she’s trying really hard to make you laugh.

Second, the book tackles a few things that a lot of new writer books don’t cover or cover minimally. There are plenty of books that will cover the classic plot structures, character development and other things you need to know in order to tell a convincing story–whether it be through fiction or non-fiction. Perhach covers the other stuff in a writer’s life, relating her and the experiences of other writers in finding ways to nurture and grow your writing habits, covering everything from what to read (and how important reading is) to meditation to clear your mental decks (she claims to never suffer writer’s block because of her daily 15-minute meditation sessions), as well as touching on the business side of writing, along with thoughts on pursuing an MFA (spoiler: she doesn’t think it’s necessary).

It took me awhile to read through the book and though I enjoyed it, I found myself wondering why, and I believe it’s two things: I found the quotes from other writers largely unnecessary (fewer would have been fine) and there are sections where even Perhach’s writing style can’t lift the subject matter from feeling just a little dull. But I have read a lot of books on writing, so it’s just as likely that I am becoming a bit weary of the topic of writing itself.

Still, I think this is a good intro to the craft of writing for a new writer and have no problem recommending it alongside other more “nuts and bolts” book on the writing process itself.

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Book review: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Review: Bird by Bird

There are a couple of important things to remember when reading Bird by Bird. The first is that it was published in 1994, so it predates the internet. This means that the writing advice is not informed at all by the last 27 years of technological and social change. It makes a difference.

The second is that, while Anne Lamott is enthusiastic and funny, this is not anywhere close to a formal how-to on writing. Lamott covers some broad topics–writing every day, not worrying about the quality of first drafts, how publishing shouldn’t necessarily be looked on as an end goal–but does not get into any kind of nitty-gritty. The advice is more inspirational than nuts and bolts.

A lot of it is amusingly written. Lamott seemed a tad neurotic at the time but also rather self-deprecating, so a lot of the book consists of colorful recollections on how she dealt with various writing-related crises, and sometimes her advice translates to simply “don’t do the thing I did.”

I was glad to finally read Bird by Bird, but the passage of time, changing markets and new technologies have made some advice less relevant in 2021. Some fault may also undoubtedly lie with me–if this was one of the first books on writing I’d read, I probably would have found it hilarious rather than amusing, and found the tips more compelling. Still, it’s a quick read and a lot of the information it contains remains relevant today.

UPDATE, September 24, 2021: I have fixed a few egregious typos and such in this review. I always seem to commit the worst writing mistakes when reviewing books on writing.

I also think my take on the book is a bit glib–this is a well-loved classic and I think I was in an especially cynical place when I read it, and that colored my view of it. If you are just starting on your potential career in fiction writing, this is one of the books I highly recommend reading. There is a joyfulness in it (along with pain) that you don’t find in many books on writing.

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Book review: Insanely Great

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Steven Levy’s book chronicling the development of the Macintosh is not just a historical record of the development of that seminal personal computer, it’s a historical record in itself. Originally published in 1994, with an afterword for the revised edition added in 2000, it captures Apple at three distinct periods in its history, all of them coming before the development of the iPhone and Apple’s eventual rise as the world’s most successful consumer electronics company:

  • The early 1980s when the company went through its first growth spurt, buoyed by the success of the Apple II. This is where the bulk of the book takes place, as it covers the genesis of the Macintosh through to its debut in 1984.
  • The early 1990s. The Mac is established and successful, albeit not the world-changing device many of its developers had hoped for. Apple itself is in a precarious position, embroiled in boardroom drama, a bloated product line and the existential threat of the growing PC market.
  • The late 1990s. In which the story comes full circle, in a way, with Steve Jobs returning to Apple and unveiling the iMac, the first major release that would help guide Apple back to profitability and long term success.

The first third of the book lays out the history leading up to the development of the Macintosh, centering largely on Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). One of the scientists working there was Alan Kay, whose hypothetical “Dynabook” would embody many of the design elements we take for granted in modern personal computers. The scientists at PARC would go on to create machines that used mice and windows, but the company was never able or particularly interested in turning their research into commercial products, frustrating many of them who wanted to push forward the boundaries of computers.

From here, Levy–who actually visited with these scientists during this time in the early 1970s–moves on to the newly-minted Apple Computer, which was expanding to dozens of employees on the success of the Apple II. The Apple II was a capable but primitive machine and most acknowledged it would not be the future of Apple. A serendipitous trip to PARC by a team from Apple to take a look at what the scientists there were working on would lay the groundwork for what ultimately became the Macintosh.

It’s here that Levy moves onto a two-pronged approach, covering the development of the technology, along with the personality clashes along the way, many of which were due to Jobs’ combination of perfectionism and antagonistic management style.

Apple actually developed the Lisa first, a Mac-like computer doomed to fail mainly due to its exorbitant price (some things never change). Another team worked on a more accessible computer and while Jef Raskin led the Macintosh project initially, Jobs imposed himself and eventually took over.

Levy does a good job in letting the principal characters tell the story through their own words, fleshing out detail when needed, without imposing his authorial voice (though he is an unabashed Mac fan). Oddly, Levy’s tone stands out most when he is simply talking, often in a condescending way, about the technology itself. He is clearly interested more in what the technology can do and not the nerd factor.

The fun here is in seeing how the Macintosh team struggled and (mostly) overcame so many obstacles as they put together the original 128K Mac. Levy does a very good job in dispelling the notion that Apple simply copied what they saw at PARC. The Apple engineers actually expanded the PARC research in significant ways and put all the technology into a device that could be used by anyone. The Macintosh was not the first computer with windows, a mouse and a graphical interface, but it was the first available to the masses and the first to do many things we take for granted now.

It’s especially illuminating now, some 36 years after the debut of the Macintosh, to see how it all came together and how the original device really shaped the personal computer industry–and still does, as witnessed by the introduction of Apple’s in-house M1 chips that will power all Macs going forward.

One minor complaint about the book–it is filled with numerous grammatical glitches, possibly due to a bad scan (it effectively predates the e-book era). There’s also some sloppy, if amusing typos, such as a note on how “Hypercard was included for free with every Macintosh starting in 1977” (impressive as the Macintosh did not debut until 1984).

Overall, this is an informative and at times fascinating look back at the birth and clumsy adolescence of the personal computer, and how one, the Macintosh, dared to push forward, thanks to an incredibly dedicated and talented team of designers and engineers. Recommended–and not just for nerds!

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Book review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, I want to express my relief that the trend of every other novel in the last five years having “girl” in the title has not merged with the newer trend of every non-fiction book having “f*ck” in the title.

Mark Manson is a guy with a potty mouth who found himself, started a blog and now has a few books like this one detailing his philosophy for living a better life. At its simplest level, it boils down to (with cursing) letting go of all the things that hold you back, because a) we’re all going to die and b) better to trey something and maybe find what you really want than to not try and muddle along, vaguely unhappy.

It’s not a bad philosophy.

He frames happiness–or rather, the misguided pursuit of what we think will make us happy–as a central problem in our lives. Don’t try to be like a celebrity, don’t just aim to make a lot of money doing whatever, think about what you enjoy, then pursue it as best you can. He uses his own misguided youth as an example of what not to do, and how the sobering, unexpected death of a friend woke him up and put him on a new path. Don’t worry, his advice does not rely on the sobering, unexpected death of a friend to work. Or at least I assume not. A lot of what Manson talks about is not particularly new–he advises against holding “shitty” values, and “rock star problems” (basically not appreciating what you have by unrealistically comparing yourself to levels of success that may be rare or unattainable to most). What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck unique is Manson’s voice. As I said, he has a potty mouth, and there are passages in this book that made me chuckle or even laugh aloud. It helps the presentation a lot–if you’re into a somewhat blue version of getting what is essentially timeless advice on living.

F*cking recommended if you’re not averse to a little salty language mixed in with sensible advice.

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Book review: Following

Following: A Marketing Guide to Author Platform by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Gaughran’s latest on helping writers is a short volume on creating an author platform. With his usual wit, Gaughran cuts away the marketing hype and reassures the reader that an author platform is basically having an established presence online, not some great convoluted thing that would require a team of experts to assemble (though he does suggest outsourcing some aspects). He offers a mix of general and specific advice on what to do, ranging from what social media to focus on (to no surprise, he says Facebook is the one essential due to its reach, even if you may dislike Facebook as a company) to recommendations for hosting and content management systems (CMS)–and again, he not surprisingly recommends WordPress, which is to CMS as Facebook is to social media, though perhaps with less imperiling of modern democracy.

Much like his fourth (and now free) edition of Let’s Get Digital, Following also comes with a link to online resources that Gaughran promises to keep updated, extending the book’s usability beyond what is contained in the text.

For a beginning author, this is a welcome and even gentle way to introduce the idea of establishing yourself on the internet as a writer, even before you have completed your first book. Gauhgran’s advice is sensible and much of it is based on his own experience–learn from his mistakes so you don’t make them yourself! I especially like the tips that seem small or simple, but could have a profound effect (and may come as a relief to the starting writer), particularly in debunking some common beliefs, such as needing a robust presence on every social media platform, or needing to keep an active blog going. For those who have read Gaughran’s other books on writing, it will be no surprise that he pushes hard on building a mailing list.

Gaughran teases the possibility that Following could be expanded in the future (and this would not surprise me, he has an admirable devotion to this set of books), but as is, it is still an excellent and recommended resource to the aspiring author.

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Book review: Let’s Get Digital, Fourth Edition

Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the most part you can just check out my review of the Third Edition of the book–everything I liked about it has been kept in the fourth edition, so I’ll mainly focus on the changes.

The biggest is that the entire book has been rewritten, so it is not merely updated, but now reflects the market as of 2020, with Gaughran offering additional wisdom he’s gathered in the years between editions.

The comprehensive resources have now been moved from the book to a specific area of his website, which allows Gaughran to continuously update them–a welcome improvement that ironically makes the book more useful even as you set it aside.

Gaughran does make a few assertions that he had not previously (or at least that I don’t recall). The biggest, for fiction writers, is that he flat out says you should write series. It’s just the way of fiction now, and unless you’re already a well-established author or writing non-genre fiction, he maintains it pretty much cannot be avoided. He presents clear arguments for this, but it still makes me sad, because I love one-off stories and prefer them to series. He softens the blow a bit by saying that a series does not have to be literal sequels, but can simply share the same setting or characters.

As with previous editions, Gaughran keeps the tone light but the advice is serious, well-researched and backed by his own experience and the experiences he has heard from other authors.

If you are interested in self-publishing or have just started dipping your toes into the experience, Let’s Get Digital is and remains an excellent introduction to new authors. As before, highly recommended.

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Book review: Show Your Work

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in Austin Kleon’s trilogy of motivational books for creative (and other) types. I read it after the other two, but they can easily be read in any order.

Much like the other books, Show Your Work is peppered with Kleon’s quirky illustrations and art as he provides insights and tips in easily digestible bites. The advice is sound, smart and simple, with each piece built around its own chapter.

This time the focus is on getting your work seen, your presence known and to push aside some long-held conceptions, such as how selling art leads to the corruption of it. One example Kleon points to is how Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

The advice ranges from sharing some small part of your process with your audience every day (usually on the social media outlet of your choice) to dispensing with the notion of keeping everything secret, openly sharing how you work, how you do things, so that others can benefit from your knowledge as you may have benefited from the knowledge of others. Kleon is big on community, basically.

This is a good book and a short book, so it’s easy to dip back into it when inspiration or motivation is lacking, or when you feel you are drifting and losing focus.

This one leans more toward creative types, people who make stuff for others to enjoy, but I think anyone who can appreciate the same is bound to get something out of this book.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech

The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles & Games by Peter Leigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retro Tech provides just what it says on the tin. Starting with systems in the early 1970s, it provides a summary of virtually every video game console and personal computer released up until the debut of the original Xbox in October 2001.

Each summary includes a generous number of photos, sometimes including controllers or oddball accessories, or more mundane things like the power supplies. Leigh offers both an historical overview and also his own personal assessment on each device, which at times stands in contrast to how I saw some of the systems, accounting for the differences in reception between the UK and North American (and in particular U.S.) audiences.

Each summary concludes with a look at three games from each system: The Must-See, the Must-Play, and the Must-Avoid. A lot of the Must-Avoids are typically obscure fare (no, E.T. did not make the list for the Atari 2600–though it does get mentioned alongside the “winner”).

Leigh keeps the writing light and at times droll, never being afraid to call out lemons and questionable marketing of years gone by.

I was struck by the sheer number of systems that came out in the 70s and early 80s. It seemed that nearly everyone tried to get a slice of the video game pie before the famous crash of 1983. While there are systems that never sold well here in Canada that I was aware of–like the MSX computers, there are many listed here that I was utterly unfamiliar with, even leaving aside the UK-specific machines that never made it over here.

For anyone who grew up when these machines were coming out (as I did), this is indeed a heady dose of nostalgia. For others, it serves as a brief and well-illustrated history of the early days of video games and personal computers. In fact, my only real knock on the book is that each write-up only amounts to a page or so. I would love to see a more in-depth look at the same topic. As it is, I was able to tear through the book all too quickly.

Still, this was an enjoyable look back and an easy recommendation for those who would enjoy seeing the sometimes wacky products that came out in the quest for the early gamer’s dollars (or pounds).

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Book review: How to Sketch

How to Sketch: A Beginner’s Guide to Sketching Techniques, Including Step By Step Exercises, Tips and Tricks by Liron Yanconsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book review: How to Sketch

This book does a good job in covering all the basics when it comes to learning how to sketch. Author Liron Yanconsky brings an amiable style to the subject as he introduces everything a new artist will need to know and need to have. Starting with the correct mindset, he covers some core concerns and requirements, such as accepting and embracing imperfection (you’re learning to sketch, after all), and the essential quality of being curious and seeking variety in what you sketch. He moves on to suggested materials, some basic techniques on how to use your eyes and even how to hold a pencil.

From there, he covers more specific aspects of sketching, including:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Tones and Textures

The final part of the book consists of working from included photos to produce full sketches of people, landscapes and more.

I suspect that at least some may become discouraged as they try to replicate the excellent results Yanconsky shows for each exercise. At times the sophistication required to accurately capture the scenes feels a bit like those old “Learn to Draw” ads that went from a few scrawled lines in the first panel to lavishly illustrated drawings in the fourth panel. Yanconsky addresses this in a way, urging the new artist to focus on sections, to build a sketch piece by piece when there is a lot to draw. His enthusiasm for the topic certainly helps.

As someone who can draw but not really draw well, I found the first half of the book, with its straightforward lessons on the aspects of sketching, to be quite helpful. While I may never been a sketching whiz, this book has helped me in ways that my own bumbling around wouldn’t have.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Dream Interpretation Handbook

The Dream Interpretation Handbook: A Guide and Dictionary to Unlock the Meanings of Your Dreams by Karen Frazier

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a bargain purchase, using my two criteria for such:

1. Is the book on sale?
2. Is the subject interesting to me?

If the answer is yes, I buy and take my chances if I am not familiar with the author.

I came away disappointed here, for a few reasons. While the book is competently written and is logically divided into two parts, the first being some background and historical analysis of dreams, and the second being a dictionary that defines possible meanings to specific dream events/objects, it ends up having a little too much woo in it and also comes across as a bit facile.

As an example, it’s stated that if you dream about aliens, you may be feeling alienated. I mean, really? Many of the scenarios fit into this kind of literal interpretation, which may make “sense” but also doesn’t require an entire book to illustrate.

In the end I just wanted more and maybe that’s not realistic when it comes to dream interpretation. The author emphasizes repeatedly that you may want to check your personal frame of reference before seeking more universal symbols/meanings to your dreams. This makes sense, but it even further diminishes the value of offering dream interpretation. And a lot of it just comes down to “you may be anxious about [thing]”, unless it’s a dream in which you are flying, one of the apparently few positive dream experiences anyone has.

I have not read other books on dreaming, so I don’t know if this work is representative of the overall body of dream interpretation, and to give author Karen Frazier credit, she provides a decent list of other sources to check out.

Still, I didn’t feel like I got much out of this and can’t really recommend it.

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Book review: Ruined By Design

Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It by Mike Monteiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Monteiro is angry, angry at design, angry at designers he feels are complicit in the design that has ruined things, but he is especially angry at Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg for their leadership at Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

In recent months (July 2020 as I write this; the book was published in 2019) both social media platforms have taken a few steps to enforce what rules or standards they may have, notably when it comes to the content that Trump posts, but I suspect these minor actions would do nothing to curb Monteiro’s ire—and it really shouldn’t, if you buy in even a little to his central premise.

That premise, presented with enthusiastically crude language, is pretty straightforward: Designers have aided and abetted social media platforms into becoming wretched hives of scum and villainy, by simply doing the work asked of them without questioning it, by never objecting, by never “becoming the change.”

In the introduction, Monteiro lays out his take on the world in general and social media in particular:

“We designed the combustion engine that led to global warming (climate change deniers can just stop reading right now). We designed the guns that kill school children. We designed shitty interfaces to protect our private information. We designed the religions that pitted us against one another. We designed social networks without any way of dealing with abuse or harassment. We designed a financial incentives system that would lead Mark Zuckerberg to assert what’s good for the world isn’t necessarily good for Facebook; and lead Jack Dorsey to believe engagement was a more important metric than safety. Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it’s behaving right now. These are our chickens coming home to roost.

The world is on its way to ruin and it’s happening by design.”

From here, Monteiro splits his effort between listing the many crimes committed by design (both literal and figurative—a go to example is the engineer at Volkswagen who was “just doing his job” when he programmed the software that would fake diesel emission test results—and went to prison for his efforts after the scandal broke) and offering possible solutions, with a mix of hope and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, but he’s willing to put stuff out there, if only to get conversations started.

Framing design as a political act, Monteiro agitates for change from within (unless you work at Twitter or Uber, he advocates outright quitting those two companies), for designers to question decisions that will lead to bad design or worse, deliberately deceitful or malicious design, to find and work on diverse teams, to use the role of designer to stand up against dark patterns, ethically questionable decisions on handling data and so on.

Monteiro is a UX designer with over 20 years of experience and beings immense passion to Ruined By Design. It’s obvious he deeply cares about design and how it has changed the world for the worse. He admits he may lack precision in language—citing his use of “nickel words”—but his ideas are clearly presented, and argued in extensive detail. It’s hard not to root for what he calls for.

The book is aimed directly at designers and though Monteiro uses a broad brush to indicate just who might qualify as a designer, I am not part of this audience. The closest I get to design is choosing a font for the body text on my blog and I am assuming that I am not making the world an actively worse place by choosing Roboto Slab over Helvetica. But even though this book is not aimed at me, the arguments are so compelling and accessible, and apply to so much of what I interact with on a daily basis—that so many of us interact with on a daily basis—that I find myself recommending it unreservedly.

There is a lot to chew on here, and Mike Monteiro does an excellent job in both illustrating the problems design has caused, and the possible solutions that may mediate the damage done.

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