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.
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