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June 6, 2008

book review: a writer's guide to fiction

by sven at 3:12 pm

A Writer's Guide to Fiction: A concise, practical guide for novelists and short-story writers, by Elizabeth Lyon (2004)

I'm afraid I'm going to damn Lyon's book with faint praise. I don't want to be unfair: It's OK... I found a certain usefulness in it... But there's nothing interesting enough about it that I think I'd ever tell someone to go read it. It's competently written -- but nothing more special than that.


Lyon lays out the various elements that go into creating a written story: plot, characterization, character arc, beginning with a hook, ending with a neat conclusion, making prose active and vivid... Topics that I'd expect anyone writing a book on fiction to cover.

The trouble is that I don't see any original thought in this book at all. Based on the copious references that Lyon lists, I'm convinced that she's probably read most of the better contemporary books about writing fiction... And this is the one real usefulness that I find in her book: I feel like without having to read them all myself, I've gotten a snap-shot of what people who think about the writing process currently believe.

Unfortunately, I find myself rather appalled at what "most people" (if that's really the case) believe. Here are a few of the buzzwords that seem to be inescapable:

The Hero's Journey, Archetypes, Character Arc: these are all interesting forms to study, and potentially quite useful to the aspiring writer. What I object to is the implication that all good fiction MUST be based on these principles. No exceptions to the rules are discussed, no alternative options adequately explored. [With the minor exception of the derivative "Heroine's Journey."]

Furthermore, I chafe against such advice coming from authors who are merely pointing to the seminal works of others. Grandiose claims that "all" stories must include a certain structure could be forgivable -- IF you were yourself doing the hard work of producing an original analysis, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon along with a generation of authors who seem to all idolize the same gurus.


So, the title "A Writer's Guide to Fiction" feels about right. I feel like I got on a tour bus and Lyon was my guide, pointing to the major landmarks as we drove through the "land of writers." But I don't feel like we got much of a chance to get out of the bus and go look at scenery up close. Overall, a somewhat bland and safe ride.

There are a few moments when Lyons expresses her own convictions -- which stand out as being more memorable:

"Characterization, not plot, is the core of successful fiction." (p.6)

I don't feel this statement is true -- but it's an interesting position that she asserts. (Personally, I feel that both characterization and plot are important -- but that emotion/feeling is the beating heart of fiction.)

"In fact, in nearly every novel I have edited or critiqued in two decades, the protagonist has been the last character to emerge from the marble." (p.118)

Lyon repeats this idea several times, that authors tend to neglect developing their protagonist's characterization. Good observation, which I'll make a point to remember.

"I believe the synopsis is so important for staying on course that writers should not see the synopsis as optional in their planning." (p.159)

I've read several books which advise writing various sorts of mission statements for your project. Lyon emphasizes coming back the microcosmic rendition of your story repetitively, though, which I found noteworthy.

In general, "A Writer's Guide to Fiction" feels strongest to me where Lyon is covering topics that she has really grappled with personally -- rather than material that she's just teaching from her lesson plan.

She talks about having been in critique groups for many years -- and consequently, her chapter on diagnosing problems in your fiction and correcting them feels concrete and useful.

The book that she wrote prior to this one was titled "The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In." Consequently, her chapter on marketing your manuscript also felt more succinct and informative than most of the others.


It's not at all a focus of Lyon's book, but what was probably most fascinating to me was when she'd talk about what it takes to produce good fiction and then throw out some actual numbers. This may just be a quirk of my own, having an interest in metrics... But to the extent that I can say something positive about this book and not undermine your interest in it entirely, this seems worth mentioning. Here are some quotes that I latched onto to tickle your interest.

How long does it take to become a pro writer?

"Practice until you get your million words behind you--the number John D. MacDonald claimed were necessary to become a pro--and use your gut." (p.100)
"Donald Maass, an established and respected New York literary agent who is a former president of AAR and also, uniquely, a former published novelist, estimates ten years of diligent writing, study, and marketing as the average time it takes for a writer to reach professional skill. I agree." (p.229)

How long should I take to write a book?

"Phyllis Whitney, the famous writer with more than one hundred novels to her credit, described her ideal timeline and methods for writing a book as these: two months for research, including filling in characterization worksheets and blocking out her plot; two months for writing the first draft, according to a quota-per-day page count; and two months to revise and rewrite. Six months per novel." (p.125)

How many times should you revise a book?

"The successful and prolific writing couple, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, tell writers to revise no more than three times. That advice is not based on the assumption that the writing reaches perfection after the third revision; it is instead based on the probability that the writing is not finished and won't come any closer to perfection or being publishable by more revision. Smith and Rusch maintain that writers need experience in generating words more than anything else to develop publishable skill. Novices need to write many pieces--hundreds of short stories or dozens of novels--rather than limit themselves to what they could learn by revising only one novel or a handful of stories. I've also heard Dean and Kris stir controversy by saying that any revision beyond three robs a piece of its vitality and freshness." (p.235)
"Mainstream literary novelist Jonis Agee combines hot writing with ongoing light revision, and she uses a method of writing that brought a collective gasp from her audience at a revison workshop she led at Pike's Peak Conference in 2002. When she finishes draft #1, she reads it all the way through, and then throws it away. She writes draft #2, finishes it, reads it all the way through, and then throws it away. She told the audience that it is her third draft when she feels like her writing is best, the emotions authentic, and the characters come alive. When asked, she said that at most, she might save twenty to fifty pages of the drafts she throws away." (p.155)

posted by sven | June 6, 2008 3:12 PM | categories: writing