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):
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.
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.