Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

No single book can teach you what you need to know to be a successful writer. That’s why my how-to shelf is so full. IMMEDIATE FICTION subtitles itself “A Complete Writing Course,” as if Jerry Cleaver can cover all there is to know about writing fiction in 275 pages. The problem is, this book tries to teach a writer everything, and therefore teaches next to nothing. It’s not that Cleaver’s advice is wrong. I agree with everything he says. But he tries to cram in so much that he can only give each topic a passing glance.

Cleaver starts by explaining the basic unit of storytelling–want, obstacle, action. This is his way of saying that books need conflict. It’s an important point, but every writer already knows that stories run on conflict. Cleaver repeats this many times throughout the book, as if it is some sort of hard-to-grasp concept that his students need help with.

Then he layers on some brief instruction about emotion and showing-not-telling. However, he never demonstrates how one evokes emotion in the reader, nor does he seem to understand why emotion is crucial. (Hint: it increases the stakes.) The writing exercises at the end of each chapter are nothing more than topics to write about. I have never met a writer who had no ideas. Having a strong story to tell is what made most of us want to write in the first place. So a list of story topics is useless.

Even more useless is the chapter on method. Should you outline or just start writing? Cleaver never makes a definitive statement. The entire chapter can be summed up in one sentence–do what works for you. Since that’s his conclusion, why pad the book with it?

Just when I was about to give up on this book, I read two chapters with good, solid advice that felt fresh and useful.

In the chapter called “The Ticking Clock,” Cleaver shows how to write a novel when you literally have no time. Even the busiest people can find five minutes a day, and Cleaver ingeniously shows how someone can use five-minute increments to build a solid writing career. It’s the perfect answer to someone who claims they have no time to write, or worse yet, says they will write a book “someday, when I have the time.” Cleaver could have written an entire book on his time management methods, and it would have been a much better book than IMMEDIATE FICTION.

The same can be said about the chapter on writer’s block. Cleaver respectfully addresses the idea of writer’s block, neither sweeping it under the rug nor making it into an undefeatable monster. He gives a clear explanation of what writer’s block is and isn’t, and also concrete solutions to getting words on the page. Like the rest of the book, the advice here is probably too simple, but it might be enough to help someone get started writing.

Even so, two decent chapters out of a “complete” book are not enough, or not enough of the right kind of instruction. If you’re an absolute beginner who has never put pen to paper a single time in your life, or if you’re very young, this book might get you going without confusing you or weighing you down with details. However, if you’ve written any kind of fiction, even a short story (or a slightly-embellished email) then your ability is already beyond this book.

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: absolute beginners

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I recommend SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder or BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott instead of this book.

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Rating: 2 stars

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