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To Read or Not to Read: HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL by James N. Frey

As I explained in part one of my series of writing book reviews, I’m on a quest to read my whole writing book TBR stack. This time, I picked up a popular writing book with a compelling promise in the title:

How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

damn good novel1-coverimageWhy I bought it:

Because the wonderful Nikki Kelly, author of the Styclar Saga, recommended it on this very blog.

What it’s about:

This goes over the basics of writing dramatic (or what I would call “commercial”) fiction. From character development, infusing conflict, and settling on a premise to rewriting and critiquing, this is a no-nonsense guide to writing strong commercial fiction.

The good:

• Though this was thorough, it was a quick, engaging read.

• There are tons of examples, both invented and drawn from popular commercial fiction, which illustrate points about strong vs. weak dramatic writing.

• This is just a really great primer in the do’s and don’ts of writing fast-paced fiction with characters your reader will want to spend time with.

The bad:

• Some references felt a little dated. Luckily, Frey used a lot of different examples to illustrate his points. So even if you aren’t familiar with, say, the plot of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, there will be plenty of references to A Christmas Carol, The Godfather, and others, so there’s bound to be some examples you are familiar with.

• In the same vein, some of the information about querying agents felt like relics of a bygone era (like his advice to hire a professional to type out your manuscript on a typewriter.) But again, this isn’t really a problem. It’s just clear this was written thirty years ago. However, the advice about character and story is still compelling.

Pearls of wisdom:

It’s hard to come up with only a few takeaways from this book, because I kind of want to type out the whole book instead. Because it’s pretty much all good information. But here are a few gems.

• On preventing melodrama: “As long as uni-dimensional characters are used only for the minor roles in your novel, okay. But when they are used for major roles, such as the principal villain, dramatic writing turns into melodrama.” (p. 3)

• Three steps to creating three-dimensional characters: 1) understand the character’s appearance, 2) understand the character’s history, and how that history shapes his or her motivations, 3) understand your character’s psychology.  (p. 4-5)

• On static conflict (conflict that doesn’t change) and jumping conflict (conflict rising too quickly): “To ensure that you have a rising conflict, look at your character’s emotional level at the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene… If there is conflict but no change, you have static conflict. If the characters change in the scene but do not progress steadily, you may have a jumping conflict.” (p. 43)

• Every story needs a premise, and “every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion” and you should select what goes into your story by making sure everything acts to prove your premise. (p. 60, 62)

• Secrets of a great climax: 1) “Look for surprises,” 2) “exploit powerful emotions,” 3) “issue a verdict in the court of poetic justice.” (p. 94-95)

• Beware of misusing flashbacks and burying story in backstory: “a flashback is a device foolish writers use to avoid conflict.” (p. 113)

• What makes good dialogue? It “should be in conflict, indirect, clever, and colorful.” (p. 138)

• How do you write dynamic prose? “A. Be specific. B. Appeal to all the senses. C. Be a poet.” (p. 141)

• Understanding writer’s block: “True writer’s block has four primary causes: not knowing your characters well enough, trying to edit and write at the same time, fear of failure, and fear of success.” (p. 168)

Bottom line: Should you read it?

Yes. If you’re reading this blog, you probably write YA. YA is dramatic writing. So pick this up and read it. Even if you’ve taken a few writing courses, this is a handy, succinct guide that will walk you through how to make your writing even more exciting, conflict-filled, and rewarding for the reader. Just go out and buy it already.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will review Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

What are your favorite writing books? If you’ve read How to Write a Damn Good Novel, what are your thoughts? If you haven’t read it, do you think you’ll pick it up?

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Christine Barcellona

Editor / I blog and edit for Swoon Reads, plus I'm the editor for our paperback line, Square Fish. Find ...

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