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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Frey's Writing Tutorial A D@#! Good Book

I rarely say this, but the only thing I don't like about James N. Frey's How to Write A Damn Good Novel is the title. I mean, it's catchy and all, but leave it laying around the house and you're going to get some flak. My 7-year old said, "Mom, I can't read cursive very well, but I'm pretty sure that book has a bad word on it." Then, my 11-year-old hit me with, "Mom, if a book has bad words in it, why are you reading it?" Ahem. My response of, "Because it's a @!$! good book" didn't impress them. In reality, I mumbled something more along the lines of, "Oh, uh, yeah, hm ... good point."

Anyway, Frey's novel-writing tutorial (first published in 1987) covers the basics of fine storytelling in an engaging, easy-to-read manner. It's a slim volume, but it hits all the important points, like: working with a solid premise, telling the story from the most interesting viewpoint, the necessity of continually increasing conflict, writing snappy dialogue, and plenty more. If it's been awhile since you've taken Writing 101, I suggest reading this book - it provides an excellent refresher course. There are several other books in Frey's "Damn Good" series, all of which I'm putting on hold at the library right now.

Since I've been fooling around with my own novel, I found this passage particularly funny (it's long, but worth the read):


If you go to dental school you will take a state exam when you finish and, upon passing, you will be given a license to practice dentistry. In order to take the test, you must have first submitted to a rigorous course of study, done thousands of hours of supervised work in people's mouths, taken hundreds of exams, and paid a lot of money. When you're finished, you will be called "Doctor," and your cup will runneth over with drilling, filling, and billing. If you do good gold crowns, play soft music in the waiting room, have a receptionist with a sympathetic smile and a soothing voice, you may even become rich.

In the course of your studies you will have been transformed from an ordinary citizen into a Doctor of Dental Surgery. You will even begin to think of yourself as something more than an ordinary citizen. Someone will ask you who you are and you will say, "Sam Smoot, Doctor of Dental Surgery."

For novel writing, unlike dentistry, there is no course of study you can pursue and, when finished, say "I'm a novelist." You can get an M.F.A. in creative writing, or a Ph.D. in the modern novel, but that won't make you a bona fide novelist. To be a novelist, you have to get published.

Being an unpublished novelist has about as much social acceptability as being a shopping bag lady. Should the word get out about you, your friends will snicker. Your neighbors will whisper about you. Your Uncle Albert will try to talk you into becoming a chiropractor. Your Aunt Bethilda will take you aside and lecture you on the grim realities and responsibilities of adulthood. Your creditors will break out in hives. Your mother will be sympathetic, but late at night her eyes will flood with tears as she tries to figure out where she went wrong.

It's a sad fact of life, but to be an honest-to-goodness novelist you must have that honor conferred on you by a publisher. But remember this: each and every bird is first an egg, and each and every published novelist is first an unpublished novelist - even the great ones, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce included.

There are several strategies for avoiding the stigma attached to proclaiming yourself a would-be novelist. One is to tell people you are a writer, but not to admit that what you're writing is fiction. Suppose you're writing a murder mystery in which the victim is a prostitute and the murderer is a college professor. You can tell everyone you're writing a book about sexual mores and morbidity in academia. That sounds like a good subject for a nonfiction book. Your friends will be impressed. It's okay to be a nonfiction writer because it's assumed that nonfiction writers are hard-nosed practical people who take life seriously. Besides, it is popularly believed - possibly with some justification - that anyone who can spell well can write a nonfiction book, so no one will doubt that your project has merit.

Another way to camouflage your novel-writing pursuits is to enroll in an English Literature degree program someplace and take only snap courses. As long as it looks as if you're working for a degree no one will ask what you're doing locked in your study all day and half the night. If they ask why you're banging away so hard on your typewriter, tell them you're writing a thesis. Everyone knows that's a sensible thing to do.

Some novelists at the beginning of their careers go completely underground. These "closet" novelists tell no one. They hide their manuscripts behind the refrigerator. They write in longhand so no one will hear the clacking of typewriter keys. Nobody knows the closet novelist even reads novels, let alone wites them. Their spouses may think they are keeping a lover in the basement or garage, or wherever it is they "do it."

Any of these methods will work. The alternative, the "John Wayne Solution," is a bit tougher. The John Wayne Solution is this: grit your teeth, rock back on your heels, stick your thumbs in your belt, and just say it - I'm writing a novel, nad if you so much as smirk I'll punch your lights out, pilgrim.

You get the idea.

I've been dreaming of writing a novel since around kindergarten, so I've read dozens of books about creating fiction. Somehow, I missed the gem that is James Frey. I love How to Write A Damn Good Novel, bad words and all.

Grade: A-

If this was a movie, it would be rated: PG for some language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Although an author (Janette Rallison) recommended this book, I bought it with my husband's hard-earned money. He fervently wishes I was being paid for this review. As do I.


  1. I'll have to make sure that I add this to my list!

  2. I'll have to read this as well, since I've been writing for about a year now.:) Great review, as usual!

  3. I loved your review! And you're right, it is a funny book. Will add to my TBR list.

  4. I'm so glad I found your blog. I am a total bookworm and always looking for a new book to read!! :)

  5. I took the John Wayne approach to unpublished novelist-hood so the unwanted shame of telling people I'd given it up would drive me to keep working on it!

    Being a lawyer by day helps with the Aunt Bethildas, but sure cuts into the writing time! :)

    I should probably read more writing books.

  6. Hee! Love the excerpt, I'll have to check this one out (and come to think of it, I think I saw this at our library! Yay!).

    I generally take the closet novelist approach. I've known so many people who went around saying, "Oh, I'm writing a NOVEL," in such a pretentious fashion that it made me want to scream, and I don't want to be that person, lol. So I'm writing something. What it is, I have no word for it (I think of it as "my story"), and few people in my real life know about it. No one knows what it's about, only me. :D

  7. I loved your review. And thanks for telling me that such a book exists. I have been trying to be a published writer myself, but have no clue nor the right contacts to go about it. I must read this book.


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