How to Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

I enjoyed Frey’s previous how-to book, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, and looked forward to reading the “advanced” version, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II. However, this second volume doesn’t really explain advanced techniques, nor does it show how to deepen a novel. Sometimes, more isn’t better. It’s just…more.

For example, in his earlier volume, Frey tried to explain what a premise is. He failed badly. His editor and readers must have told him he’d made a mess of it, because HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II has two chapters on premise. The first takes a premise and tries to simplify the concept. I’m still not sure what Frey was trying to say, but it seems as if his definition of “premise” is something like a log line crossed with a theme. The second chapter expands the premise into a complete outline. Neither chapter sheds any new light on story development. They are likely to confuse beginners rather than help them. After all, most writers already know exactly what they want to write about and don’t need two muddled chapters to tell them.

The next three chapters cover character, suspense, and voice. Frey uses examples from “damn good” novels such as CARRIE and JAWS. He hates pretty hard on literary fiction, calling “trying to be literary” one of the deadly sins of writing. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to genre writers. Besides, no single book can cover all types of fiction. Frey is smart to specialize, but there’s a big difference between loving genre books and actively putting down any other kind.

The best part of HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II comes near the end, when Frey covers the seven deadly mistakes that writers make. Things like “ego writing” and “failure to keep faith with yourself” and “timidity” aren’t craft issues, they are life issues. We’ve all made some of those mistakes, and a few of us have made all seven. In Frey’s usual no-nonsense style, he shows why these mistakes are deadly, and gives examples of students who stumbled on the path and never made it. He also gives examples of students who overcame these early mistakes to become great writers.

Frey knows what he’s talking about. He becomes uncharacteristically self-revealing in the final chapter as he details his own early struggles. Each of the seven deadly mistakes are things he learned the hard way. After a hundred pages of drill sergeant toughness, he turns humble and rather sweet as he encourages writers to stick with it, because the writing life–for all its struggles–is a wonderful life to live.

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rating: 3 stars

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pie slices: 7 slices craft, 1 slice inspiration

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this book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

5 thoughts on “How to Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

  1. Can’t disagree with this one. Frankly, I think Frey’s best work on writing is his How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. No mention of premise really, and no need for one. (His whole “premise” thing made me struggle for a long while after reading his first book as a very young writer). The Mystery book has a lot more hands-on stuff, and while there is still A LOT in it I don’t agree with, I think there’s plenty to glean.

    Now, don’t even get me started on his Thriller book. No matter how many times I’ve tried to make it through that one…ugh.

    • What is up with that whole “premise” thing? It’s as if Frey is obsessed with it, but can’t explain it.

      I’ll have to check out his book on writing mysteries.

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