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Book Review: How to write Damn Good Fiction

As part of my efforts to grow as a writer, I’ve just finished reading James N Frey’s reference book, How to write Damn Good Fiction.


This book is the first writing How To that I’ve really enjoyed reading. In it, Frey refers repeatedly to a small selection of stories from a wide range of genres and styles (Crime and Punishment, Jaws, Carrie, the Red Badge of Courage and a couple of others), showing how the various aspect he’s talking about work together, rather than picking a different book to demonstrate each point he’s making.

The chapters cover such issues as creating memorable characters, evoking sympathy, the narrative voice and the author’s passion. But Frey doesn’t just trot out the usual trite advice, he breaks these concepts down into ideas that actually make sense (at least to me) and gives concrete examples of how to do it well (or badly).

He explains in two detailed chapters, his version of the concept of Premise. It’s something that troubles me and I don’t actually totally agree with some of his examples (see footnote 1), but his explanations are so clear, that this doesn’t really detract from the insight I gained by reading the book.

The book was first published in 1994 and reprinted in 2002. (You may also find it under its alternative title, How To Write A Damn Good Novel II.) The final chapter is quaintly archaic, referring to WordPerfect3.1 (ah, I remember those days) and fax machines. But his advice is just as timely now as it was then, and that doesn’t detract from the book as a whole.

If you’re an aspiring writer, looking to hone any part of your craft, I strongly recommend this one. It’s an enjoyable read, and packed with good advice.

Footnote 1:

Frey defines the Premise as: “A statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story.” So far, so good. However, he gives the following example:

Joe Average on his way to work one day, hating his humdrum life, when he sees an armored truck careen around the corner and a bag fall out the back door. Joe picks the bag up, takes it home, and finds that it contains $3 million. His wife pressures him to turn it in; he does and becomes a celebrity. He goes on the Tonight Show where he talks about his great love of dogs (which he made up because he felt he had to say something) and is picked up as a spokesman for dog food, so he becomes even more of a celebrity and a champion of animal rights.

Joe begins to get a swelled head. His wife leaves him and sues for a ton of money in the divorce. He starts living high on the hog, gets taken to the cleaners by a succession of girlfriends, and starts drinking. While staggering home one night, he encounters a dog on the street and kicks it to make it get out of the way. His mistreatment of the dog is videotaped and put on all the news shows. He’s ruined. In the end, Joe gets his old job back, realizes fame was not for him, remarries his ex-wife and is perfectly happy.

Frey summarises the premise of this novel as: “Finding a bag of money leads to perfect happiness.” Doesn’t seem like that’s what I would take away from this story, personally, and therefore I’m not persuaded I’d describe it as the premise, but let’s agree to disagree.

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