How to Write Damn Good Fiction by James Frey

How to Write Damn Good Fiction is not a writing book for beginners. It doesn’t cover the basics of characterisation, plotting, dialogue, grammar or novel construction. What it does cover is the difference between writing that is mediocre and writing that really stands out.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

How to Write Damn Good Fiction:
Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling
by James N Frey
Macmillan, Softcover, 149 pages, RRP A$A$25.00
Oct 2002 (first published as How to Write a Damn Good Novel II in 1994)
ISBN 333-907590

As a book reviewer I get lots of letters from people asking for tips on how to produce a best-selling, money making novel. My usual advice is to steer clear of writing altogether. Writing fiction is extremely hard work, and the competition is so steep that the chances of serious financial success are very low. If getting rich is the goal, you’d be better off, odds-wise, in playing the lottery, or sticking to the much more potentially lucrative areas of corporate writing. Of course not every fiction writer is trying to get rich from his or her work, or even to specifically write a “bestseller.” There are some of us who do it for pleasure (and a strange sort of pleasure it is too), or for artistic expression, or because we love (and can’t help) playing with words, exploring concepts and people in literary formats, and perhaps most importantly, because the idea of producing something powerful and beautiful is compelling enough to keep us writing through the inevitable self-doubt. In other words, because we want to create something that is “damn good.”

As James Frey clearly points out in his book How to Write Damn Good Fiction to be “damn good” at anything, you need to work at it. Creative genius doesn’t spring out of thin air, but is a lengthy and painful process of writing and re-writing, studying and reading great books, and constantly honing your craft. It is also a matter of keeping at it.How to Write Damn Good Fiction is not a writing book for beginners. It doesn’t cover the basics of characterisation, plotting, dialogue, grammar or novel construction. What it does cover is the difference between writing that is mediocre and writing that really stands out. There are chapters covering the creation of “the fictive dream” or how to transport your reader into a fully absorbed fictional world through the use of imagery, sympathy, identification and empathy. Frey covers the creation of serious suspense, looks at ways of creating unusual characters who are interesting and engaging, works on premise and how to ensure that the premise drives the story, on narrative voice, the author-reader contract and avoiding the seven deadly mistakes of fiction writing (timidity, pompousness (“trying to be literary” – although I tend to use the terms ‘literary fiction’ in the way that publishers do – synonymously with quality – so prefer ‘writing in a way that is overly pompous or obscure’), ego-writing, inability to re-write (or “re-dream the dream”), failure to keep faith with yourself, wrong lifestyle and failure to produce).

Frey’s style is light, colloquial and snappy, and this easy to read book is candid and often humorous. In the final chapter on “Passion” Frey recounts how he make every one of his seven deadly mistakes at one point or another (an excellent way of revisiting that critical chapter), and promises that “damn good” is 100% guaranteed for any writer who keeps at it, works hard and treats his writing as a lifelong craft and mission. The book is full of examples of good and bad writing, and although some of the examples aren’t all that “good” considering the great mass of extraordinary literature available (eg Jaws, Gone with the Wind, Carrie, the Wizard of Oz,The Godfather, etc), and the book itself is a little more genre oriented than I would have personally liked, the messages and lessons are very clear. In any case “damn good” is certainly a matter of opinion, and there is no disputing the success of the books used. There are also references to real literary classics like The Trial, Crime and Punishment, and Pride and Prejudice.

Frey’s best chapters are the two on premise, which have more depth and detail than the other chapters. His explanations of what premise is and its critical importance to fiction writing are well written. There is a step-by-step breakdown of hypothetical novels (this is also done for Samson and Delilah), from the opening situation to each complication, climax and resolution. By the end of these two chapters there can be no mistaking the way to use a premise or the need for a clear, important and relevant premise. The book is also motivational, making “damn good” fiction seem within the reach of any writer who is clear enough about their goals and able to avoid the seven deadly mistakes. Of course Frey is right – application precedes inspiration. This entertaining and relatively short, easy to read guide is a worthwhile reference for any fiction writing looking for ways to revitalise and hone his or her craft.

For more information, visit: 
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II:…

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