How To Write A Damn Good Novel II – A Book Review

I seem to be in the groove now, writing again about a book on writing.  Or perhaps I should say in a rut.   No, I’m on a roll, I’m stormin’ along, I’ve got the goods for you here (although better I find some for myself) ….

The book is How To Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).  I thought this was a more recent work, since I hadn’t come across it until just recently, but it’s been around for awhile.  It’s a sequel to his initial work of the same name without a numeral, of course, but it goes beyond the standard, though good, novelistic advice of the first work.

It was interesting to read this just after going through Robert Olen Butler’s book on fiction writing From Where You DreamButler’s work is based on talks he gave, so the style is more digressive, and perhaps not so organized as Frey’s, although I would say much more focussed on the role of emotions, the senses and the unconscious in the act of writing.  But there are encouraging and shared emphases in Frey’s book.

Frey writes about the fictive dream and he quotes John Gardner which is a serious mark in his favour.  The writer must transport the reader, and the fictive dream is the means by which this is done.  The fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion, as if by a con man or hypnotist.  “Both the hypnotist and the fiction writer use it to invoke a state of altered consciousness.  … The fiction writer offers specific images that create a scene on the viewing screen of the reader’s mind.”

This harks back to Butler’s emphasis on sensual imagery and how emotions are embedded in the senses.  Butler also finds much in cinema and acting that gives insight into the writing process.

And Frey makes the same point here as Butler: “The reading of fiction, then, is the experience of a dream working at the subconscious level.  This is the reason most sensible people hate the academic study of literature.  Academics attempt to make rational and logical something that is intended to make you dream.” 

However, Frey’s advice for writing is much more willfully directed than what Butler would prescribe.  And Frey leaves us at the threshold of the dream without saying in so many words how to approach crossing over and building it.  Instead, he immediately takes on the problem of how to get the reader involved emotionally.  (I find my problem is more how do I get me as the writer involved emotionally!)  But what he says here is fruitful too.

Sympathy is how Frey says we engage the reader emotionally.  It is true, and contrary to some writing authorities, that a sympathetic character doesn’t have to be admirable.  He cites the brutal character in the film Raging Bull who nevertheless found audience sympathy.  How?  The story must be told in such a way that the reader feels sorry for the character.

“Without sympathy, the reader has no emotional involvement in the story.  Having gained sympathy, bring the reader further into the fictive dream by getting him or her to identify with the character.”

Identification is the next stage in developing reader involvement.  This means that the reader not only is in sympathy with the plight of the character, but also comes to support the character’s goals and wants the character to successfully achieve them.

“Give your character a goal that is noble, and the reader will take his side, no matter how much of a degenerate slime he has proven to be in the past.”

The next stage in reader participation in the fictive dream is empathy.  And this gets back to what Butler is trying to say. 

“You can win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling – the feelings that trigger his emotions.”

The final step is what Frey calls “the transported reader.”  The reader is so involved in the story that the outer world disappears.

And what takes the reader that final distance?  Frey says: inner conflict and the decisions of the character that come from that.

“It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character’s guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling for the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader.”

Frey uses examples from Stephen King’s Carrie to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to make his point.

There is much more in Frey’s book than I can describe or even hint at here.  For instance there’s a quite amusing section on creating memorable wacky characters.  Perhaps you’re thinking, “Like Bugs Bunny?”  No, more like Ahab in Moby Dick: out on the lunatic fringe.  Extremism in any dimension will serve just about.  “Give the character a philosophy of life that is somewhat askew.” 

If you’re interested in this subject matter, and you’re thinking of writing a novel, I would recommend Frey’s book.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Writing

4 Comments on “How To Write A Damn Good Novel II – A Book Review”

  1. bloglily Says:

    Another great review. It’s so fun to see what you ‘ve been writing in the last month! (And reading.) What say you on the subject of writing the next novel?

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks for reading my idle thoughts, Lily… And how are you? Hope all is good, healthwise.


  3. bloglily Says:

    Hey Mike. I’m well. A bit tired, but so happy not to be driving to the hospital every day. The car? Eh. I’m done with the car. Happy Valentine’s Day. And I do want to know about the next novel! xo, BL

  4. fencer Says:

    Happy Valentine’s Day to you too, Lily!

    I’m working on that ol’ next novel… although some might find my efforts nigh on invisible, there is considerable gestation fermenting, if I may mix my metaphors….


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