12 April 2013

How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, A Review

"Tell them to write as honestly as they can. Tell them to ponder their characters to make sure that the emotions their characters feel and the decisions their characters make - their choices, their courses of action - are consistent with the characters they have envisioned.  And tell them to check and recheck each sentence to be sure they have communicated what they intended to communicate.  And to ask themselves, What does this sentence say? Are its nuances the nuances I want? Tell them that's what they have to do if they aspire to write a damn good novel."  - Lester Gorn

There are a few things How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques is not: it is not a magic wand, it is not a waste of time, it is not light reading, and it is not a book for the beginning writer.  This book assumes that you have a reasonable grasp on how to formulate a plot, write characters, and handle a premise (without which your plot is just another absurdist comedy regardless of your pacing or gripping action sequences.  Premise is what your book aims to prove in around 80,000 words).  If you haven't spent at least a few thousand hours on writing, then this book likely will not be as useful to you as another book on the bare bones of writing.

As promised in the title, Frey delivers hard hitting advice on how to write with increased complexity and realism.  He starts off with a chapter on the Fictive dream - which it is your job as the author to induce - and how it's not in fact a dream at all, but a trance.  The following chapters are like nested for-loops (for the coders) or the dreams within a dream from Inception (for everyone else).  If you're one of the three people that hasn't seen Inception, basically it's a multi-layered frame tale like that old shaggy dog about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader ad nauseum.  EXCEPT!  Your stories better only induce nausea from terror and wicked descriptions, not boredom, or your writing dreams are DOA.

Frey will guide you through how to really craft the telling details that will make your minor characters pop without taking over the scene, how to redream the fictive dream yourself while editing, further tips on orchestration (which Lajos Egri discusses in his masterpiece), and most importantly of all: Multiple Premises. While the story has one premise (let's use Macbeth, because I like Scotch), say "Ruthless Ambition leads to destruction," the protagonist(s) might have quite another: "Power belongs to those who can seize opportunity" (Lady Macbeth), or "Betrayal earns death" (Banquo).  However, what Frey means here is that a single story can contain TWO main story premises, but for this to work you need two equally strong protagonists (hence why orchestration is covered before this chapter).  This means that you'll have 2 climaxes (they should be near each other), 2 moments of truth (the protagonist must choose either to sacrifice his/her lover and live or risk death themselves), etc.  For example, you could have "Selfish Love leads to Desolation" (Male Lead) and "Tyranny sows the seeds for Freedom" (Female Lead).  In fact, those could be the arguable premises for Ibsen's The Doll House.

Bottom line, get some writing under your belt (if you read this blog, likely you already DO have a non-trivial amount of writing under your belt), buy this book, and enjoy the confidence of the James N. Frey's 100% guarantee: work hard, learn well, re-dream the dream, eat the delicious pie of publication.
Just keep in mind that Jack London worked hard, and for him that meant 18 hours a day 7 days a week locked in his office writing, but then again, when he started he could barely string a sentence together.
Also, Mr. London is dead.  Whereas you are still alive and therefore your potential is limitless.  Now get back to work.

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