"Novelist’s Boot Camp", by Todd A. Stone

Pros: Great for inducing discipline; fantastic revision advice; turns the writing process into a (comparatively) simple process of following checklists
Cons: Metaphor/shtick gets driven into the ground; overdoes the “more/bigger is better” advice
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review book courtesy of F+W Publications/Writer’s Digest Books

“Novelist’s Boot Camp” is a rather unique and interesting approach to a writing book by Todd A. Stone, a former assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point. It turns the process of writing a novel into a military mission complete with battle plans, drills, and… push-ups.

Yes, push-ups.

The book is a start-to-finish plan designed to get you through the process of writing a novel, from inspiration straight through revision. It’s meant to get your butt in the chair and your hands moving–no whining, no complaining. If you truly want to get your book written but you never seem to get much of anywhere, this book might well give you the discipline and stamina you need, not to mention the tools. If you perennially give up on your projects or say, “I just don’t have the time,” try Todd Stone’s battleplan for success.

The book starts off at the very beginning, with mental preparation and mission planning. It follows up with invention and development. The next order of business is drafting your novel, with plenty of tips on everything from characterization to style & voice. Mr. Stone has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach. I might not always agree with his assertions, and as always advice which works for one writer won’t work for all (which he acknowledges), but many people could benefit from his approach. In particular anyone who wants to make a living writing commercial fiction should try out the methods in this book–if you need to put out novels on a deadline and take such things as genre considerations into account, you’ll find an incredible wealth of help between the pages of this book.

One of the particularly good plans in this book is the revision pass checklist. I think just about anyone could put out a polished manuscript by following the highly focused and concrete suggestions for pinpointing and fixing your weaknesses.

I only have two gripes about this book. One is particularly minor and dependent on the reader. While the “boot camp” metaphor lends great insight in places and entertainment value in others (it certainly helps to keep the book from sounding like all the others out there!), sometimes it felt overdone and overly silly. Of course, if you take this as a deliberate silliness meant to make for an enjoyable read, then you can get into it and have a good laugh. It’s just hard to tell now and then whether the author was being deliberately or accidentally over-the-top.

The other gripe is that sometimes I believe the author overdoes the advice to push your details to the extreme. He’s always exhorting writers to make their characters more, bigger, larger-than-life. While to a certain extent I agree, I think it’s also far too easy to take this too far, and he didn’t include enough cautions along these lines. There are plenty of books that make the reader’s eyes roll because the characters are outlandishly competent, brilliant, and gorgeous, and readers seem to be developing less and less tolerance for this. Even a mild suggestion or two to temper this would have been welcome.

The best part of this book (aside from those revision guidelines!) is the short, to-the-point, pithy nature of the drills. It’s easy to face reading one or following its instructions when you’re only facing 1-3 pages of text with easy bullet lists and plenty of sub-headings. The author is particularly good at distilling valuable advice into quick, easy-to-assimilate passages.

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