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Write Damn Good Fiction | Reviews

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How To Write Damn Good Fiction - James N. Frey

Macmillan 2002 162 pages

How To Write Damn Good Fiction

or click on the book

How to Write Damn Good Fiction

 

 

 

'This book will help us to create memorable characters, will help us to heighten the reader’s sympathy for and identification with characters, and will teach us how to intensify the suspense in our stories.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'writers should be writing books so good, so absorbing, the reader can’t bear to put them down until they’ve finished them.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Frey is driven by the need to tell a story and to have that story read by others, and his advice is informed by this need.'

This is the sequel to James Frey’s forthright How To Write a Damn Good Novel, and indeed was originally entitled How To Write a Damn Good Novel II. I mention this because sequels, as we all know, represent dangerous territory for writer and reader alike. The publisher seems to know this too, and has performed a delicate but regrettable sleight of hand in the titling which distances this book from its predecessor. Yet, the two are so inextricably linked, it might almost have been better had they been collected in one volume.

This book, Frey earnestly assures us, is not for beginners. It’s written on the assumption that those of us reading it will be familiar with the fundamentals of writing already (and of course, with Frey’s first book). This book will help us to create memorable characters, will help us to heighten the reader’s sympathy for and identification with characters, and will teach us how to intensify the suspense in our stories.

Fiction writing, as Frey sees it, is a service industry, so writers need to know what the reader wants. And what the reader wants is not just pleasure, but to be transported, what Frey calls, in emulation of John Gardner, ‘dreaming the fictive dream’. In other words, writers should be writing books so good, so absorbing, the reader can’t bear to put them down until they’ve finished them. The fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion, and the reading of fiction is the experience of a dream working at a subconscious level. So writers need to create word pictures which draw the reader in to become emotionally involved with the story.

While I can’t fault Frey on this approach, I had a hard time understanding why this material was so ‘advanced’, why a writer could only come to this knowledge in a second book, and I became rather suspicious of this volume’s precise purpose. I’d already noticed a curious bittiness about it, a sense that it was being compiled from off-cuts maybe, and due attention was not being paid to the continuity of the argument. This feeling was reinforced by Frey’s early pronouncements about this book not being for beginners. True, such pronouncements lend the book an irresistible cachet; a sense of exclusivity, of batting with the big girls and boys, but at the same time, such statements do suggest a certain desperate desire to convince us that we really need this book too, that without it our lives would not be complete.

The main clue comes in chapters four and five, which extensively, almost exhaustively, discuss ‘premise’; in other words, what happens to characters as a result of the actions of the story. Or, tighter still, what the story is about. This is something that clearly matters a good deal to Frey, in which case one wonders why it wasn’t in the first book. Was this something that came to him later? Or was it cut, and left orphaned in a folder for several years. In which case, let us be grateful that Frey had the opportunity to disinter this thoughts and present them, as he is genuinely interesting on the subject, and fiercely analytical in a way I associate with screenwriters, who know that every word, every scene, has a job to do.

This is a lesson Frey could perhaps have done with taking on board in the second part of the book, which dwindles into a series of amusing and interesting but somehow faintly unnecessary set-pieces on such things as the Seven Deadly Mistakes of Writing, establishing a strong voice, and exploring the contract between reader and writer; this is all pleasant stuff but hardly material that can only be read by the advanced writer.

This isn’t, by any means, a bad book. Frey writes well about writing, and is refreshingly candid about the business, dismissing what he calls ‘pseudo-rules’ with gay abandon, encouraging his readership to free their thinking and get down to work. And yet, in his way, he perhaps constructs a few pseudo-rules of his own. He has a clear idea of the so-called contract between reader and writer; as he so rightly observes, this book is not for people writing memoirs, non-fiction and so on. Frey is driven by the need to tell a story and to have that story read by others, and his advice is informed by this need. So, if you’ve read Frey’s first book and enjoyed it, this book should be nestling alongside it on your shelf. They go together. If you haven’t read Frey’s first book, you should either get it first, or else pass this by on the other side unless you have a burning desire to study Frey’s perception of ‘the premise’ in-depth.

© Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. 2002

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller

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List price: £9.99
Publisher: Macmillan
2002-08-22
Paperback
Sales rank: 485,968