Thursday, February 19, 2009

Critically reviewing 3 How-To Write Books (Part 1)

Those of you who know me, may be aware that I've been doing a course in writing - whoop-de-doo. My most recently completed module has been in my own professional development (a very important aspect, I'm sure you agree). Anyhoo, now that it's done, and hopefully marked, and in the interest of continuing to provide content for my blog, I thought I should share some of my essays - maybe they'll give you writers something to think about. Maybe I'm just gassing.

You should agree that this essay highlights the need for a writer to read widely (and not just fiction).

Anyhoo, what follows, is the first part in my essay on critically reviewing 3 different How-To Write books - and please, if you disagree, keep it to yourself (kidding - let's discuss):


My understanding of teaching creative writing results in the use of three categories (which encapsulate literary tools):
  • Crafting
  • Concepts
  • Techniques
Both classes and textbooks shift between these categories to varying extents. Those that assist students/writers by covering multiple examples and using a number of different exercise techniques are clearly better facilitators for pedagogy. However, a writer wishing to learn more about writing needs to rely upon more than one textbook in order to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, because I don’t feel that any of them cover enough areas of creative writing’s broad canvas.

I selected the following textbooks because they varied in styles and I hadn’t read them:
  • How To Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
    (A step-by-step no nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling). New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.
  • Need to know? Writing Fiction by Alan Wall
    (The best guide for anyone with ideas). London: HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
    (A Guide to Narrative Craft). US: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Frey’s introduction to the art of writing falls largely into crafting, but touches upon concepts. With a pulpy feel that never strays beyond his remit of creating characters, developing a premise and telling the story, Frey expresses his topics candidly and I grasped them easily. However, they lack depth and exploration, i.e. discussing the basic psychology of character, Frey never fully realises a character’s development mid-novel (such as epiphany/evolution). He briefly examines concepts of point-of-view, voice, and dialogue but fails to use established literary examples and, as topics, they feel tacked on at the end. From a pedagogical standpoint this tells me rather than guides me through the process.

Mostly, Frey’s approach ticks boxes with effective and accessible examples from established fictional works, i.e. analysing rising conflict using A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is first confronted by a ghost. He also generates his own examples to maintain consistency in the crafting process – create character, put them in conflict, wrap in a plot, beat the story out to a climax. I found this focus valuable in applying Frey’s advice to my own writing.

Frey restricts himself with brief quotations from the majority of his examples, favouring A Christmas Carol and his own examples. These become monochromatical. I’d have benefited, as I did in the Fiction module, from multiple sources - greater learning is stimulated by casting a wider net. In the Fiction module we assessed two very different short stories, discussing how their content, style and technique varied. Frey avoids detailing how his chosen examples and their authors may differ in their approaches.

Frey’s written the opening to a full “narrative craft” textbook. He touches upon the structural subjects of rising tension and beats that are the mainstay of (and better discussed by) Robert McKee in his technical manual Story. He covers, too, elements that were discussed in the Screenwriting module, but, again, doesn’t meet the same level of depth. Finally, there are no exercises to stretch the reader beyond the methods presented by Frey’s topics, which the reader must extract and copy themselves.

The value of Frey’s book is important for the complete beginner, but it offers no unique advice. Besides lacking topics on scenery, evoking atmosphere or creating groundbreaking imagery from literary techniques it fails in a pedagogical sense to engage the reader to try things out for themselves.

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