Friday, June 24, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: June 2011--How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II

The Seven Deadly Mistakes

James N. Frey is the type of writer who calls a spade a spade. He also isn't afraid of showing himself up. Which is why the penultimate chapter of How to Write a Damn Good Novel II should be the type of thing a writer reads to him or herself every year. Perhaps a New Year's reminder, to keep the ship steered straight.

Here are Frey's Seven Deadlies, and a comment from him on each:

1. Timidity: "Receiving criticism is often painful. It's hard to read something to a group of fellow writers and then listen to them tell you that your prose is limp or muddled or your characters are flat. But it's really the only way to learn.... It takes guts to be a writer. You've got to overcome your timidity and face up to a solid writers' group."

2. Trying to be Literary: "The problem with literati is this: Instead of attempting to master the principles of creative writing, instead of learning how to make their literary creations fresh and dramatic, literati choose a literary god and seek to emulate him or her... If you are going to be one of the literati, pleeeeeeeze first become a good storyteller..." (Frey then goes on to say that he spent his early writing years "trying to be literary instead of trying to be damn good."

3. Ego-Writing:

 Frey tells the story of a writer who was not receptive to criticism. "This author held to the author is sovereign view of fiction writing. She was an ego-writer, of the reader-be-damned school of fiction... You might wonder how you can be a writer if your ego isn't in your writing. Aren't all good novelists egomaniacs of some kind? Well, yeah, of course they are. But the ones who succeed are writing for readers...

4. Failure to Learn to Re-Dream the Dream: Frey tells the story of two writers, one who came to his workshop with marginal skills but who, through hard work, improved; and the other whom he immediately thought had tons of potential, but who did not live up to it. When he asked the first writer about her work she replied that "upon entering the class she quickly realized that her ambition was far greater than her abilities, and that if she were ever going to write anything worth reading, she would have to learn to "re-dream the dream." What she meant by that, she said, was that when she first sat down to write something, she saw it in her mind. And then she wrote it. After she had a lot of people read it and tell her where it failed, she sat down and re-dreamed the dream. In other words, she could see the story unfold in her mind differently that she had the first time she wrote it."

This, Frey adds, is infinitely better than replacing the dream with a new dream.

5. Failure to Keep Faith with Yourself: Frey tells the story of a imagined young writer he calls Heidi Smith. Heidi starts fired up with a sense of purpose, but her journey, like that of most writers is filled with the bumps and potholes of rejection along the way. She gets a job, she has a family, and suddenly she finds herself in her late twenties, married and with a child. And no longer writing. "Heidi was following the common path of most writers who eventually succeed. First the rejections, then the learning of craft, then more rejections, then personalized rejections, then small sales, and then the big one that makes you an overnight success. It's a long road for most writers, and many quit just as they complete the building of their launching pad, but before the rocket is launched."

6. Wrong Lifestyle: "You cannot soar with the eagles if you're wasting precious time gaggling with the geese. Do you want to be a writer or don't you? If you are going to be a writer, the only kind worth being is a damn good one, and the only way to be a damn good one is to, by God, give it everything you've got. Giving it every thing you've got means you will have to give it a lot of your time. To give it a lot of your time, you will have to not give a lot of your time to other things, like jobs,friends, family, and cleaning toilet bowls."

7. Failure to Produce: "To avoid such traps as time slippage and writer's block, look at writing the way a real bricklayer looks at his job. Writing is a job. It takes time and effort, the same as any other. Set yourself production goals. Three pages a day will get you a 270-page draft of a novel in three months."

It's a great manifesto, and I urge you to read it.

Are you guilty as charged of any of the above? If so, what did you do to free yourself from any of the deadlies?


  1. Yes, writing takes time, and it does take time from other things. Most of us have to try to balance this. I recently heard an interview with the daughter of William Styron, and she talked about living with her father ... it was very interesting, and not so nice. I hope I can be a good writer, but, when my children grow up and talk about what it was like to live with me, I hope they'll be able to say I was available and gave them what they needed.

  2. Lots of good stuff here. Thanks.


If comments be the food of love, comment on. Give me excess of them... (With apologies to The Bard)