29 March 2013

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, A Review

All right ladies and gents, I promised you a review of a craft book that will kick your writing in the balls or punch it in the ovaries.  James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel IS that craft book - just in case a curse in the title wasn't an indication of that.

This is a great book filled with information that will help you really see whether you have the perspective it takes to be a writer.  Frey opens with a segment on subspecies Homo Fictus, a term he uses to explain why fictional characters CANNOT be real people.  My favorite little segment on the Homo Fictus explains why your heroine should never, ever, ever be the "idiot in the attic."  Homo Fictus always behaves up to their maximum potential - never beyond, never beneath.  So, your teenage babysitter armed with a flashlight and an ever-present cell phone will not in fact storm the serial killer's lair in the attic.  She'll call the cops and get the heck out of Dodge.

By far the meat of the book focuses on the integral parts of storytelling, with special emphasis on how to create sympathetic characters by manipulating the opening situations and thus the reader's emotions.  To really hook a reader you, as the author, have to give the reader someone with whom they connect.  That doesn't mean your character has to be likable; look at Scrooge.  Dickens wants Scrooge to be loathed, and no one will contest that Dickens succeeded - otherwise why would "Scrooge" still be an insult over a century later?

The book ends with a rubric on how to assess one's writing groups.  This rubric was especially helpful to me, because I had just moved 1300 miles and had fallen in with a new writing group, a group that could have quickly damned my own push for writing mastery.  These writers had no negative comments to say about anything someone else brought in - in short this was a "fluff" group.  Unless you need a group to keep you coming back to the page (accountability is important for everyone), then the only group worth joining is one that will tear your work apart.  Frey calls these groups "destructive" but the fact is they're just serious about their craft.  If you don't have the guts to keep bringing in a piece for repeated stripping down and whipping, then you won't get any better.  This is also a good place to practice separating your self from your art.  You are not your novel, your novel is not your child, etc.  Your novel is a piece of work.  If a carpenter got upset at someone for criticizing a rickety table, do you think s/he'd ever make a dime?  Of course not.

This is my second favorite book on craft, and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.  Go out, buy it, read it, and if you don't feel that you're a better writer for it, leave a comment and I'll provide my e-mail address for your strongly-worded hate mail.

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to writing.

26 March 2013

Your First Novel, a review

Here's a review of Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitberg.

This is a freebie, because honestly there's not much content that you can't get faster and better and with less "positive thinking"/"visualization"/"dreams can come true" bullshit from another book on craft.  Now, I'm on a bit of an anti-positive thinking kick,  because I'm reading Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  If you're as tired of hearing "think it and it will come true" stories from Joel Osteen and his ilk, then this is a book that will be actually useful for you.

Your First Novel opens with a great foreword by Dennis Lehane and his overnight/ten year success that emphasizes the hard work it takes to be a writer, while the next two chapters encourage you to dream about your success, and it will be sure to come to you.  That is a load of bollocks.  Any writer worth their salt will try to tell you to steer clear of writing, to run while you still have a chance, but if you're reading this review and looking for books on craft, then it's already too late.

If you actually want something worth reading that's still inspirational, I'd recommend the NYT Writer's on Writing volumes I and II.  Essays about writing by writers, it's hard to beat.

Cheers, and write on, dear readers.

22 March 2013

The Art of Dramatic Writing, A Review

This series will kick off with a review of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.  Readers will remember that I featured this book in a short story, which can be found here.

Lajos Egri's book, while focusing on the art of becoming a playwright, is very probably the most important book on craft I've ever read.  If you want to write a novel, but haven't started yet, here's my advice: write down all the notes and ideas you have, but do not set a word of it to paper until you've read The Art of Dramatic Writing.  If you read no other book on craft - you'd better read more books on craft, but this is THE place to start.  The word premise gets tossed around in most of the books this series will feature, but no one drives it home like Lajos Egri.  "The Premise is a tyrant who permits you to go only one way - the way of absolute proof."

There are many other useful chapters about orchestration, unity of opposites, crafting a smoothly rising conflict, but the work he does on premise, first of all, is straight up ballsy.  He wrote a book that overturned thousands of years of how people look at writing by taking a scientific approach to it.  Bear in mind that it was written in the 1930s so some of the science (germ theory/medicine) is highly dated, but his points are not invalidated.  So what is a premise?  In short, a premise is the heart and brain of your novel; without it you are doomed to write an insipid story.  The premise is what the story aims to prove.  Let's look at a few examples:
Macbeth - Ruthless ambition leads to ruin
Romeo and Juliet - Great Love transcends hate and death
Ender's Game - The burden of leadership requires isolation and suffering
Mistborn - Tyranny leads to revolt.

Now if you look at some of these, you might be able to draw a different premise, but that premise will have the same elements mentioned in my own premises.  In short, a premise is the absolute synopsis of the story.  Let's look at Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to ruin.  There are three parts to every good premise, 1) Character (Ruthless Ambition, Lady and Lord Macbeth), 2) Promise of Conflict (leads to -> something will challenge the Ruthless Ambition or an opportunity will present itself, which leads inevitably to conflict), 3) Resolution (Ruin, Macbeth's death).  Every truly great story has these three elements included in the premise.  With a clear premise, your story will have much better odds at being successful in telling the story you want to tell.  Without a premise, you're sunk.

All in all, I will go on record saying that the single greatest failure of my undergraduate creative writing curriculum was that this was not required reading.  If you read the book and take its advice to heart, it will save you the years of stumbling around in your own stories that I spent wasted in my own.

20 March 2013


So we all know that Hemingway is famous for saying, "Write drunk; edit sober." But I just now realized why that approach would be so useful.  Each morning Hemingway edited everything he had written the day before, usually he was up by 5AM.  I imagine splitting headaches are a good way to prevent any phrase that does not absolutely sing from slipping past the grouchy editorial eye.

What the rest of this year will look like.

So far this year has featured new themes every month, mostly centered around humor, but since I've been reading a lot of craft books over the last year and a half, I figured I'd share my findings.  So, for the remainder of the year (or until I run out of books on craft), each week will feature a new review of a book on craft.  The posts will be uploaded on Fridays at noon PDT.  Here's a list of what the next few weeks will look like in no particular order.

1. The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri
2. How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey
3. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, James N. Frey
4. The Key, James N. Frey
5. The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell
6. On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner
7. The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
8. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction; ed. Williamson
9. Characters & Viewpoint, Elements of Writing; Writer's Digest Book series.
10. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card
11. Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
12. Getting Your Book Published for Dummies, Zackheim
13. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft

The list will get longer as the year progresses.  The reviews will consist of what was useful, what was not, and whether or not it should be required reading for Undergraduate Creative Writing.

14 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, IV

Genre: Cooking
Having Substance: An Insomniac's Guide to Sleeping Better

"A no-nonsense guide for amateur pill poppers. My favorite recipe is undoubtedly the 'Sleepless in Seattle' cocktail with an Ambien twist."  

07 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, III

Doubling Down on Douchebaggery: A comprehensive how-to on living bitterly

Reviews:  "I laughed, I cried, I ran over my spouse's dog."

"All these years, I thought my unhappiness was my own fault.  Now, I know it's yours."

05 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, II

Charlie Don't Surf: an Explorer's Guide to the Hidden Beauties of Vietnam, a book on tape, narrated by Sgt. Kilgore.

So racism and failed wars, yeah...

03 March 2013

Books that should never Happen, I

Welcome to March!  This month, I'll be featuring the titles of Books that should never be written.
Genre: Self-help/Inspirational
Teetotaler: How I Drank my Way to Sobriety. 

SPOILER ALERT:  The protagonist dies.