Book review: 5,000 Writing Prompts

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More by Bryn Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I did not read all 5,000 prompts.

But I did read most of them, actually, not just to get the inspiration, but to get an overall feel for how Donovan puts together her lists. Quite often you can see her riffing on a theme or flipping a prompt to generate another (“Write why you like scrambled eggs. Or why you hate scrambled eggs with the fire of a thousand suns.”)

There are a few things Donovan does that elevates this above so many other writing prompt books or websites:

  • Quantity. Yes, sometimes size does matter! The sheer volume of prompts means you’re bound to find some that appeal to you, even if you use her method of randomly picking one.
  • Speaking of randomly picking one, Donovan directly tackles the purpose of the prompts and suggest picking one to write every day for two weeks, to rekindle your interest in writing if it’s faded. This is an entirely sensible plan, but a lot of prompt books don’t address this at all, they just pile on the lists.
  • Speaking of lists, Donovan provides a great deal of variety and even the groupings that might seem marginal to you (for me it would be the poetry prompts) actually offer a lot of good ideas that can be applied to other types of writing.

Donovan offers commentary and background on some of her ideas, especially those that have cultural or historical significance.

Really, this is just a solid all-around collection. I expect to use a bunch of these prompts as I seek to re-ignite my own fiction writing (and if you don’t write fiction, there’s lots of material here for blogs and other forms of non-fiction writing). Recommended.

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Book review: Keep Going

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a delight. Austin Kleon not only has an awesome name, his art is a fun and quirky mix of collage, cartoons and wordplay. This is someone who sees art all around him, then dives in to make even more.

The focus on the book is primarily aimed at creative types, specifically writers and visual artists, but most people can glean useful stuff from the sensible, thoughtful ideas he shares. Many may seem common sense, like finding a “bliss station”–a space where you can focus on your creativity, whether it’s a physical spot or just time you carve out of the day–but Kleon presents them as a piece with his own thoughts, creating a unified, accessible whole.

Kleon emphasizes experimentation, not getting hung up on the pursuit of perfection, and focusing on making art that makes others–and yourself–happy. He is big on gifts, less so on selling your stuff on Etsy, or somehow trying to make money from your creativity (he is not opposed, as he does it himself, obviously, but warns of the danger in trying to commercialize something you love and are passionate about).

He urges the reader to take social media in small doses, to turn your day to day life over to a virtual “airplane mode” from time to time, to not focus on doing things just to generate likes or clicks.

Keep Going is a short book, all the better to get through it and start applying what Kleon advocates. I read this on an iPad Pro and definitely advocate reading it in a format large enough to appreciate the numerous sketches, cartoons and notes, whether it be through tablet or even quaint old paper. The illustrations are all black and white, so a larger e-reader should work, too.

A solid thumbs up for creative types seeking easily-acted on inspiration and tips, and still recommended to others for the positive approach to life.

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Book review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was better than expected. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Peter Laws, apart from the blurb for the book mentioning that he is a reverend and perhaps a seemingly unlikely choice to author a book about why we are delighted by things that scare us (he devotes an entire chapter on this near the end, and also addresses it at the beginning). A writer when not conducting church services, Laws has authored novels about a professor aiding in the solving of religious crimes, and also reviews horror and similarly themed movies for The Fortean Times, the delightfully wacky magazine devoted to the weird and out there. This is relevant, because Laws demonstrates wit and verve throughout The Frighteners.

Laws has done his research on why we seek out to be frightened by various things, but this is not a carefully considered study and analysis, it is very much Laws providing expert testimony and studies, while adding in a lot of his own personal take on the various spooky subjects, neatly divided into their own chapters. There are fictional frights—scary movies and TV shows, but also could-be-real frights like ghosts, werewolves, cryptids and more. Then there are the sadly real, like serial killers, their “murderabilia” and crush videos (don’t look up the latter if you are at work or anywhere else on the planet. Trust me on this.)

Laws doesn’t defend the more dubious aspects that some people seem to crave, but he does attempt to understand motivations. And he highlights that most of us—even people into murderabilia (mementos from famous crimes or killers) have our limits. For example, a couple that run a curio shop in York sells things like strands of Charles Manson’s hair, among other ghoulish “delights”, but the American half of the couple admits she turned down the chance to sell bricks from Sandy Hook, because she lived nearby and had no emotional distance from the killings.

A lot of the fare Laws covers is lighter, and even silly. Zombie-themed escape rooms are a big thing now, and Laws partakes not as research for the book, but because he just loves them so much (he went to Transylvania for his 40th birthday), going out of his way to squeeze every last bit of drama from them, like the hero of a horror film.

In the end I was carried along by Laws’ enthusiasm for the macabre and frightening, and his gleeful delight in the same. He provides enough research, expert interviews and other material to elevate the book well above “I like scary stuff, let me talk about it”, so if you find the subject matter interesting, this is an easy recommendation.

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Book Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point I was ready to give this a three-star rating, but in the end the sheer enthusiasm of Neil Patrick Harris over the things he loves won me over…to three-and-a-half stars, which I can’t actually assign on Goodreads. But pretend I can.

The section that nearly lost me was one of the fictionalized segments where Harris assumes a super-macho sex stud persona and involves Harold and Kumar. It was kind of gross and while I ain’t no prude, I didn’t find it at all funny, just…gross.

And that’s the worst thing about this autobiography. It deliberately subverts the entire genre by presenting it as a “choose your own adventure,” so the whole book, save for specific sections, is written in the second person, with each chapter giving you options on how to proceed. It took a bit to get used to, but I didn’t really mind it in the end. And if you ignore the choices and just flip the page, you can read the whole book (or at least it didn’t feel like I missed anything).

There are also recipes, magic tricks and testimonials of sorts from others, ranging from Penn Jilette to Sarah Silverman. Some of these are obviously done for comedic effect, others are more sincere. Illustrations and script fragments, self-interviews and more complete the package and while I can’t say it all holds together as well as it should, Harris’s fondness for performing and the adulation he has for those he admires and loves shines through brilliantly. It’s this core, along with witty observations of show business that really make the book worth reading.

And yes, there is a little dirt along the way, as Harris is not shy about pointing out other actors who may not be…quite up to standard. Or drunk. Or both.

The photos at the end, especially from when he was trying to be a super cool “straight” twenty-something, are hilarious and well worth checking out on a tablet or computer where you can see them in glorious full color. Conversely, the photos of him with his husband and kids are cute enough to be used as stock photos of wholesome gay parents.

If you’re looking for an eclectic, sarcastic biography of someone who loves show tunes, this will fill your very specific needs. If you’re hankering for a more conventional biography, you may find this particular take a bit lacking.

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Book review: Surviving Death

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect a lot of people will have one of two reactions on reading this book. They’ll either roll their eyes and put it down, dismissing it as a bunch of non-scientific hooey, or they’ll allow themselves to admit that definitive evidence may be ever-elusive, but that Kean presents a strong set of circumstantial evidence to suggest that consciousness can and does exist outside of the human body, and can therefore exist after death.

Kean breaks the book into sections and devotes chapters to letting direct witnesses or participants tell their stories in their own words, ranging from classic out-of-body experiences. My favorite is a woman in hospital who floated around and outside the building while suffering cardiac arrest, spotting a blue tennis shoe out of sight on a ledge. A medical social worker later looks for and finds the shoe, which precisely matches the description the patient offered. This story is also a good example of the evidence Kean provides. While you can come up with ways the story might be faked–the patient and social worker may have conspired together, the patient may have planted the shoe herself before her hospital stay–they all seem highly implausible, but not quite impossible, always leaving some room for doubt for the skeptical.

Kean devotes further chapters to past life experiences, “actual death” experiences where the patient is clinically dead for a period of time, and a large part of the book to communicating with the dead through mediums and seances. Kean ends up inserting herself into the story after attending several seances in which she believes she is contacted by two spirits, those of her brother and Budd Hopkins, the UFO investigator, with whom she was acquainted. She also sees physical manifestations of objects like human hands forming out of ectoplasm. If it sounds weird, it’s because it is weird.

Kean admits as much while asserting that she always remained analytical, taking notes and doing all she could to establish the events were authentic and happened as she recollected.

The underlying thesis is that there exists two things we can’t really see or even prove. The first is psi energy–the ability to do things like move objects through thought alone (yes, just like Carrie, but with less burning-down-the-high-school), and the second is that each person has a consciousness or what some might call the soul, that resides within our brains and bodies, but is not bound to them, so that when we die, this essence or soul is released and joins others in another dimension that doesn’t quite overlap ours. It’s established that those in this other dimension cannot easily communicate with us, because they exist outside of regular physical space. But the other dimension is very groovy and peaceful and wonderful, and is why virtually everyone having a near-death or out-of-body experience loses their fear of death.

A good part of the book is spent on various observers debating whether the experiences are created by discarnates (spirits) or through the psychic energy of those who report seeing them. It is notable that those having this debate are only arguing between the two possibilities, not that the phenomenon is fake or staged in any way.

The evidence presented is about as good as can be expected and Kean comes down on the side suggesting the evidence points toward survival (life after death) rather than just being projections made by the living. I found few instances where I thought, “Yeah, but…” in the many examples provided, and this is a credit to Kean’s research and thoroughness.

It’s still all very weird, though.

I went into reading Surviving Death with an open mind, and I remain the same after. I can’t say I “believe” as I haven’t seen any of the things Kean documents, but I also can’t deny that any of it might be possible. I’ve long felt that the world we see and the world that is are two vastly different things, that we only understand a small sliver of what we consider reality. I find this intimidating, but also exciting. And in the end (no pun intended–well, maybe a little), the idea that death–something none of us can avoid–is nothing to fear, but rather something to embrace when it comes, is a welcome one, particularly in western culture where death is treated as something terrible. Myself, I want a wake, not a funeral, and if I am still around in some form post-death I would absolutely delight in freaking out any surviving friends by messing with them. In a good-natured way, of course.

I did feel that the final section on mediums and seances could have been trimmed a bit, as the material starts to feel same-y as Kean documents various mediums and episodes, but it’s a minor criticism.

If you are intrigued by the idea of the consciousness surviving outside the living body, and of life only being one part of the human experience, Surviving Death is easy to recommend.

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Book review: The Inner Runner

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You by Jason R. Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, some background: I’ve been running for ten years (since 2009 if you happen across this review some time after 2019), but I’m a late bloomer, as I was already 44 when I started. I can’t say I regret how fast my run times may have been in my 20s because I never saw them!

I’ve read a few books and lots of articles on running. When I began, I researched shoes and other running gear and am glad I did. I still cringe when I see other joggers on the trail in the middle of summer wearing sweat-drenched cotton t-shirts.

I came into The Inner Runner not as a neophyte, then, but as someone who has been running less lately due to knee and other issues. I felt like I was losing some of my mojo, so I figured this book might provide some inspiration. And while its fine for what it is, it didn’t really inspire me at all. Going for a run around the lake got me fired up again, though, and one of the mantras Karp repeats throughout The Inner Runner is to just run. So in that sense, maybe it has helped.

There are some nice success stories and anecdotes here about the running experience, but Karp seems at times confused about the audience. At times it feels like he is giving advice for the wayward runner, and at others it seems like he is trying more to entice newbies into the running life. I don’t think you can effectively pitch a book at both audiences, as their needs and motivations are going to be different.

Karp wears his biases openly–he prefers short, fast runs over longer, endurance-focused efforts, and he is a big believer in running being something that can undeniably make someone’s life better, through the discipline, focus and dedication it requires. He lists many benefits, such as how it is one of the most effective exercises for losing weight, but doesn’t shy away from potential downsides–leg and foot injuries being the prime examples.

I did have an issue with Karp’s repeated use of “pain” being a necessary part in improving your performance. Pain is not good, pain is your body telling you that you’re pushing too hard and should stop. Pushing through pain is not noble or brave, it’s dumb and greatly increases the chance for injury. Sometimes Karp uses the term “discomfort” instead and I actually believe this is what he really means most of the time, but word choice matters and I’d hate to have anyone read this book and come away thinking that if they aren’t hurting while they run that they are doing something wrong.

Overall, this isn’t a bad book. It has a lot of interesting background on the body science of running–Karp is quite knowledgeable on the subject, but it’s perhaps too long and lacking in focus.

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Book review: Contagious

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short book that feels a bit like a magazine article that got padded out, but it is accessible and both provides explanations for why things are popular, along with tips on how to make your own product/event/thing popular. It generally manages to not feel too much like a sales pitch.

While a lot of what Berger offers seems obvious when he explains it–people are more likely to remember something and share it (“go viral”) if the product is an inextricable part of the message you craft, rather than not being connected at all to an otherwise clever ad, for example–I was left feeling that you can do everything right and still not have your whatever-it-is catch on. Call it luck, karma, coincidence, or something else, it still seems that most products, stunts, messages and so on get put out to the public and die quiet deaths, no matter how carefully they have been created and nurtured to become successes.

Berger outlines the mnemonic STEPPS as the key to how things catch on: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. Each makes sense. For example, we are by nature inclined to enjoy narratives, so a good story can be an effective way to transmit a message (one of the examples used is the story of the Trojan Horse and how it serves as a warning to be suspicious when an enemy turns friendly without cause). There is also some pop psychology fun in examining how easy it can be to manipulate people (line-ups = product good, no line-ups = product bad), but in a way it’s also a bit depressing to realize how much of everything we see and experience hasn’t just been made for us to enjoy, it’s been crafted in a calculated, even cynical way, to work on our emotions.

Although not especially revelatory, Contagious is a quick, easy read.

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Book review: Stretching to Stay Young

Stretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain FreeStretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain Free by Jessica Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was a kid I was nearly double-jointed. I could bend my thumbs back to touch my arms with ease. Today I could do the same if I surgically removed the thumbs first. I am, in a word, inflexible.

As this can have negative effects for both runners and those getting older, two groups I am a member of, I picked up Stretching to Stay Young to see if I could return to at least a little flexibility in my body vs. the immovable board it is now.

I can’t say how effective the book is as I haven’t applied its exercises yet, but I will say that the presentation is thorough, accessible and clear. Jessica Matthews starts with explanations and background on stretching, its benefits, the various muscle groups and so on. She moves on to instructions for a multitude of stretching exercises, each accompanied by a clear color illustration of how to do it. They look simple, even fun.

The bulk of the book then covers sets of stretches tied to recovering from or preparing for specific activities, everything from walking, running and cycling, to sitting for hours in an office chair, talking on a phone and more. She further includes sets for conditions like sore shoulders, necks and more, ending with tips on customizing your workouts.

After reading, I unrolled my exercise mat, recently found buried behind some junk I got rid of, and tried a few simple exercises. Imagine taking a log and laying it down on its side, then asking it to stretch. I am that log. But Matthews addresses this, regularly advising the reader throughout the book to never push to the point of pain, to take it slow, and to allow time for results to appear (she has a chapter devoted to debunking myths, including the old “no pain, no gain.”)

For anyone looking to incorporate stretching into their daily or weekly routine, this guide provides everything you need in a stylish, straightforward format. Recommended.

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Book review: You’re Saying It Wrong

You're Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words--And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse

You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words–And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross Petras

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is good fun for word and language nerds. The title is a bit misleading as the authors dig up some fairly obscure stuff to hit that 150 total, but there are plenty of expected words, too.

(I was expecting to see “halcyon” on the list, but apparently I’m one of the few that gets tongue-tied over it.)

The authors also cheat a little by including a few phrases or misunderstood words, but a little cheating is fine when it’s in service of showing how “would of” is wrong and stop writing it!

As you read through the entries it becomes clear that most of the pronunciation trouble arises from a word’s origin in another language, most often French, at least as far as this list is concerned, though Latin and other languages come get called out, too.

And then there are the recurring nautical words that make no sense at all because of drunk sailors slurring everything they say. None of these words come close to being pronounced the way they look–gunwale, boatswain and so on.

I will also happily own up to mispronouncing more than a few words covered here. In my defense, as is the case for most people, I never hear the words spoken, so I am always making a best guess and my guesses seem to line up with everyone else’s, as no one ever corrects me. Or maybe everyone is just too polite to say something.

The book ends abruptly after “zydeco”–there are some endnotes, but it would have been nice to have a brief wrap-up. I also think less-is-more would have worked here, by culling out some of the more obscure words and perhaps expanding on the number of phrases. Overall, though, a neat little book that will make you feel a bit smarter–or dumber.

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Book review: Kiss My Asterisk

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar by Jenny Baranick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, sassy and innuendo-filled collection of tips on grammar and spelling that stays PG despite references to Richard Gere and gerbils. The book is derived from the blog Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, a title that pretty clearly sets the tone for the book.

I think my favorite thing in Kiss My Asterisk were the examples of the creative spelling used by some of Baranick’s students:

whorable (“I am having a whorable day.”)
thoughs (“I love old black and white comedies. Thoughs are the best.”)
celeberde (“Have you ever met a famous celeberde?”)

While the book on the whole covered familiar territory for me, it did help me to better understand my abuse and misuse of commas, so I consider the purchase as money well-spent. If there are any misplaced commas in this review, don’t blame the author. I am not always a fast learner.

My only serious complaint is how abruptly the book ends. I mean, it just stops and you’re looking at an answer key for the exercises. It was a bit disappointing. The tone, though consistently cheeky, sometimes misses the mark, but I did find myself chuckling more than a few times. There aren’t a lot of books on punctuation out there that can do that.

Overall, recommended, though you might want to read a sample before committing, because if the tone doesn’t work for you, the whole book will be fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying.

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Book review: In Such Good Company

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the SandboxIn Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would feel bad rating this book lower than four stars because it is an adorable, gushing and heartfelt love letter to the show Carol Burnett put on for 11 years.

If you are looking for behind-the-scenes dirt, you’ll find none here, save for one brief mention of a troublesome guest star who walked out. Apparently high at the time, Burnett only goes so far as to allude the person was “on something.” Even with the worst guest ever she pulls her punches because she is just that sweet.

Her reminisce does touch on some negative aspects of the era in which The Carol Burnett Show ran, though (1967-1978), particularly the sexism that allowed men to be “commanding” and take charge on their shows, where women were expected to keep quiet and know their place. Burnett, to her regret, played along, finding the absolute nicest ways to raise any criticism when she thought the writing of a sketch was weak, or a particular bit just wasn’t working.

The majority of the book, though, are reminisces of Burnett’s favorite episodes, sketches, characters, musical numbers and guest stars. She lavishes praise on her own cast and the many people who appeared on the show and you can’t help but come away with how incredibly kind and generous she is. It made me want to go back in time to be on the show. Especially if I could go back in age, as well. :P

I was 14 when the series ended in 1978, but I watched the last four seasons or so and loved it nearly as much as Burnett herself (though I was a little impatient with the musical numbers and I didn’t catch a lot of the references in their movie parodies–though I still clearly remember the trampoline in their Airport ’75 spoof).

There are a surprising number of photos included (Carol watched every episode as research for the book) and while they are screen grabs, they immediately took me back to the 70s (the contemporary fashions are as tacky as you’d expect), the nostalgia hit immense and satisfying. If you read the ebook on a tablet, the photos are in color as a bonus.

If you expect deep insights or as I mentioned earlier, dirt, you may come away disappointed, but Burnett walks the reader through the entire production of the show from first script reading to taping, with lots of amusing bits sprinkled in. In the end, this was what I expected–a fond look back at Carol Burnett’s favorite part of her long career, showcasing her own personal highlights from her show–and it is the warmest, friendliest book I’ve read in a long time.

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The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon

The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow (Dictation Mastery for PC and Mac)The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow by Scott Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that sets out to do one thing, in this case guide you through using voice dictation with Nuance’s Dragon software to improve your writing output. And author Scott Baker succeeds in providing a concise, clear and confident set of advice, covering everything from set up to hardware recommendations, the common pitfalls to avoid and more.

A lot of the advice also applies in general terms to using any kind of voice dictation, though Baker as much admits that Dragon is the only credible option for the best results (and is more expensive now that the Premium version has been discontinued in favor of the pricier Professional version). Dictation has the potential to dramatically improve your writing speed on first drafts–Baker advises against using it for editing, as do other authors I’ve read who are otherwise strong advocates of dictation–and Baker encourages the reader/writer to use it whenever they can.

He also addresses a problem people generally have with voice technology, whether it’s dictating or just speaking a command to your smart phone–it can feel somewhat embarrassing to do in public. Baker gamely insists people won’t care and my transit rides suggest he may be right, but he provides solutions ranging from dictating in your car on the ride in to work, to dictating as you leave the train and head to the office. With the increased speed of dictation over writing, even 10 or 15 minutes can yield great results.

Baker’s website also includes video tutorials for buyers of the book, as well as a blog where he regularly reviews microphones and other hardware, as well as provides a useful bunch of links to resources ranging from books, microphones, software and other accessories.

In all, this slim volume is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with Dragon dictation software, but more than that, it’s a good primer on why dictation is worthwhile to begin with, full of practical advice and good tips.

Recommended.

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