Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Nonfiction on Writing Fiction

I have recently begun perusing the shelves of my local bookstores and library looking for books that give writers advice on how to write books. In general, it seems that there are two opinions about these "nonfiction on writing fiction" books: (a) They remove most of the romance and creativity from the writing process, rendering the final product lame, and (b) They can't hurt.

I generally swing back-and-forth between these two thoughts, although my final conclusion is this: reading books about writing books may help, but reading books that you want your book to be like is infinitely better. In fact, most of the "help" offered by these books seems to be pretty general and obvious to an avid reader: point of view (POV), tense, showing vs. telling, etc. These are not ideas that are new to anyone who reads more than one book a year.

Some books, however, offer a new way of looking at these ideas, or explore alternate routes to what constitutes a "finished" book. Some are aimed towards stimulating creativity, and some promise to help the would-be writer find an agent.

Anyway, below are some of the books that I have found most useful, as well as several that have been less than helpful:

I would say that 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Schmidt, is helpful in nailing down a character with which one might be having problems. While I firmly believe that the archetypes do serve a purpose, however, I would recommend against leaning on them too hard--there is a thin line between "archetype" and "cliche." If, however, you are having problems finding a particular character's motivations, I would say this book could help you to figure out at the very least what that characters values might be (success, family, money).

If you consider picking up this book, however, I would caution against basing a character entirely on what you find here. Instead, use it to flesh out characters with whom you already have at least a basic understanding.

Another book by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Story Structure Architect offers archetypal situations, this book can help a writer look more critically at what a scene is actually doing in her story. While I would say, again, that using this as a resource to actually outline your story might be a bad idea, I also think it helps nail down whether or not a particular type of scene is necessary, depending on what its potential outcome will be.

Less helpful, in my opinion, were the beginning chapters on genres and the "11 Master Structures." Anyone who has a story in mind but doesn't know the fundamental characteristics of the story's genre needs to slow down and think about what she's doing, rather than turning to the genres and saying, "Hmm, how does the basic plot of a romance novel work?"

On the other hand, this approach may help if you're like me and you're not quite sure which aspect of your novel you want to emphasize. This section, then, would help you make your book more publishable, though it may not improve the actual quality of the work.

Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon gave me many "ah-hah!" moments. Though she does go over the apparently-obligatory point of view and genre discussions, she also provides excellent examples from literature (vs. the examples from film and cinema that seem to abound in other books of the field.)

Lyon does a very successful job of suggesting creative ways to improve potentially-weak passages without the novel becoming completely overwhelmed by "What if?" exercises. I read the book from cover to cover and felt that I really did learn quite a bit.

Finally, a book that I feel is a waste of paper: Fiction is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters. Robert Newton Peck seems to view the entire work as an opportunity to show how funny he thinks he is. The whole thing reeks of narcissm and, though his advice may be well-intentioned, it generally falls flat.

My biggest problem, however, is that Peck really seems to revel in his ignorance. While I don't mind the "ol' boy" routine, I don't necessarily think that someone who purposely displays it has much to offer someone who wants to write an articulate, thoughtful book. I am absolutely astounded that this book has a rating of 4.5 stars on Amazon, but I feel this shows how much credence one should put in an on-line review. (Except for this one, of course. This one is awesome.)
Anyway, in the first chapter (actually on the first page), Peck argues that Socrates didn't play football and therefore isn't interesting, which is why no one reads Socrates (whom he refers to as "Soc") any more.

First of all, while Peck is correct that no one "reads" Socrates, this is not because he is boring--it is because there are no existing documents written by him. Instead, we have the works of Plato, which feature Socrates as the main character. In addition, I think that plenty of people read Plato (which is about Socrates) as he is, ostensibly, the father of western philosophical thought. (Later in the book, Peck argues that Plato was an ass because he was classist and elitist and would have wanted to keep a "middle class guy like me" away from money and power. Um, duh. He thought the best person to run a kingdom was a "philosopher king" and he despised democracy.)

I guess the one thing I learned from Folks is Fiction is this: research is vital if you want to avoid looking like an ass.

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