I promised to review How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques, by James N. Frey, but I feel that today's review is more important for those sniffing out good craft books.
Along with How to Write a Damn Good Novel and The Art of Dramatic Writing, I think John Gardner's The Art of Fiction should be required reading for any introductory Fiction Writing course. It comes laden with superb exercises (conveniently condensed in the back of the book), exercises specifically honed to work on only a handful of aspects at once. This solid book will likely introduce you (I mean you specifically not you as in "one") to new vocabulary, because Gardner doesn't fear sounding erudite. He's writing for a group that wants to be the upper crust and will not settle for "mere fiction" but strive for art.
That being said, many creative writing teachers will tell you that all genre writing is "mere fiction," a thought echoed by Gardner, who lumps pornographers and cheap thriller writers together in the same sentence. However, in today's modern market for writing, mere fiction will not get you onto the shelves. People want their fantasy to comment on their real world problems, their thrillers to show that the world is scarier than a riding a rollercoaster in Hell while blindfolded and seated next to some black widow demon with wings - but that this world can STILL be conquered by hope and perseverance (and maybe a little luck). People want characters that actually are impacted by the events around them. If you pick up any Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, you'll be able to figure that out.
Here's the bottom line: The Art of Fiction will give you concrete examples and advice on how to write more than mere fiction, and all in the wonderful tone of one of the greatest writing instructors of the Twentieth Century. His book also pinpoints common errors and failures in order to direct students through the maze of writing. In addition, Gardner will arm you with the tools you need to analyze Kafka-esque novels, and the firm grounding to see that the novelist's job is not dead, not discarded, not outmoded.
Pick up a copy, start reading, and throw out all thoughts you once had of settling for "mere fiction." Life's too short, as John Gardner knew. Once you have digested some of his words, set yourself at the typewriter (I can't be the only one who likes the machine gun fire of mechanical creation) and get to work writing - some of his exercises are fabulous pre-writing warmups.