My rating: 4 of 5 stars
James Frey’s How to Write a D*** Good Novel is a classic for writers. It’s been around a long time (since 1987) because it is straightforward, easy to read and prioritizes what’s important in writing a great novel. If you’re new to writing, it tells you what the most important elements are and if you’re experienced, it reminds you where the problem areas lay. The fact that he relays all the details with a sense of humor makes everything digestible–as opposed to pedantic lecturers who write not for the reader but to hear the sound of their own words.
Chapters include the Who of writing, conflict, the story’s Premise, how to tell a story, climax-resolution and end, POV, dialogue, and editing. Among the chapters are topics that aren’t covered well in other books such as how to get to know your character (maybe via an interview), how to avoid stereotyping your character, keeping characters in the crucible, genres, when/how to begin the story before the beginning, resolving conflict, objective viewpoint (have you ever heard of that one?), foreshadowing, symbols, dynamic prose, writers groups, and where to after you’ve finished the book.
The real plus of this book is it is readable, down-to-earth, speaks in language ordinary people understand and addresses problems we all face in our writing. When I get stuck in my story, I first identify what the problem might be, then I pull my writer’s resources out and read what the experts tell me would solve it. Frey has more of those specific problems than most other books. Every writer’s handbook will tell you about the dialogue but not many get into foreshadowing and flashbacks.
There are a few items missing, though. For example, I went through a phase in my current novel where I didn’t believe I had a good handle on what my theme was. Frey doesn’t have anything on theme (I found some good information in Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit). Or story arc, for that matter. Frey tells me to begin the story at the beginning and add lots of conflict, but sometimes I need more specifics than that.
The other piece that’s missing in his book is an index. I like a good index so I can quickly find a specific topic. In Frey’s book, I have to scan the Table of Contents (which is pretty detailed) to find it.
The last bit Frey doesn’t cover is how to write with inspiration and creativity. I don’t hold that against him, though, because I think we writers have to bring that with us to the novelist table.
Overall, I recommend every writer include it in their library of How-to books and review it when you have a bit of free time. It will remind you of what’s important in our trade.