Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb

There’s a lot to like about NOVEL SHORTCUTS. Whitcomb’s attitude is upbeat, her advice sound. At the end of every chapter, she offers suggestions for further reading. I found the recommendations for other how-to books spot-on. Each chapter also includes exercises. I usually avoid them, but Whitcomb’s ideas sound like fun. More importantly, they seem as if they will actually work.

However, NOVEL SHORTCUTS also has a lot of flaws. Much of it is confusing, as Whitcomb insists on making up her own terms for things instead of using the familiar. For example, she spends an entire chapter on “crosshairs moments,” which I took to mean all the major plot points, but which turned out to be only the climax of the novel. Her chapter on plotting focused exclusively on “plot webs” and other non-linear storytelling, ignoring the more straightforward kinds of plots that beginning novelists (and nearly all genre novelists) use.

Whitcomb nearly lost me when she discussed using a “device” for storytelling, such as writing in diary format or documentary style or a confession. Not only does she think such gimmicks are a good idea, she seems to think they are essential. Very, very few novels I’ve read use storytelling devices at all, much less effectively. It takes a writer with a delicate hand and a reader with a patient heart–a difficult combination.

I finished the book anyway, and was very glad I did. The chapter called “Shortcut to the Scene” was worth the price of the book. Even if you’ve got a thorough outline for your whole novel, Whitcomb suggests taking ten minutes to outline each scene just before writing it. First you write roughly what the scene will be, then you write snippets of dialogue you want to include, then a bit of freewriting. (Whitcomb calls it a “heartstorm,” yet another new term for an old concept.) I tried her method and found that the scene came easily onto the page, and it was also better than previous attempts.

Also good was the chapter on troubleshooting. There are countless ways for a novel to go wrong, but Whitcomb tackles the big ones, such as too many subplots or characters who have gone flat. Her concrete suggestions should get a stuck writer back on track in no time.

NOVEL SHORTCUTS is both good and bad, but the chapters are short and the prose style smooth. A writer should have no trouble picking out the useful bits and leaving the rest, which is what we do with most how-to books anyway.

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rating: 3 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Plot by Ansen Dibell

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