WIR #13: The Writer's Idea Book

The Writer's Idea BookHeffron Jack. The Writer's Idea Book. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. Copyright © 2000, by Jack Heffron.

When I read book reviews at Amazon (or anyplace online, for that matter), I've the habit of reading the reviews with the lowest rating first. It's a strange logic, I'll admit, but it's one that has entertained me, as well as saved me both time and money. It's been my experience that the reviews with the most meat are those in the middle or, sometimes, those that are the most critical.

Too many 5-star reviews say nothing more than "I love it," providing me with no incentive to buy the book. Many 1-star reviews do the same saying only "This sucks," but often their criticisms are more humorous and, thus, also more entertaining. Now you can see why I also find some entertainment value to starting at the bottom and working my way up when reading reviews.

And then there are the reviews that criticize and excoriate the entire book on a single point. Unless it's something major, I discount these entirely. I don't expect any book to be perfect, but I do want to know what, if anything, is wrong with it. I guess this means that I look for reasons to not buy a book, when I'm shopping online. There's your explanation for why this method saves me money.

How does it save me time? Simple: Unless a book is undeniably terrible, so that the number of its bad reviews equal or outnumber the number of good reviews, the number of bad reviews are almost always less than the number of good reviews. Thus, I have less to read and I save time.

One review of this book was written by a reader who confessed to being a writer of science fiction or fantasy. Basically, someone like myself. They praised the book for its many prompts, which number more than 400, but criticized the book because its prompts didn't involve the fantastic, saying that it was too geared toward the "literary." I discounted this review, but it stuck in my memory such that I thought it worth mentioning in this blog post.

Why did I think it worth mentioning? Simply put, at the most basic level a book's genre is irrelevant. No doubt some science fiction and fantasy fans are now raising a ruckus over this comment. Even fans of science fiction or fantasy read their favourite genres not only because of their fantastic elements, but also because of the people who populate them. In fact, no matter what the genre, the story people are the primary reason fiction is read. We want to read about people caught in some predicament, not only to learn how they solve the problem but also to learn how they are changed by it.

It's been said that the science in science fiction must to be integral to the plot such that the story would fall apart without it. As true as this is, no science fiction tale would be a story without people in a predicament. The science in science fiction is integral only when it is tied to the predicament, but it's the people's actions and reactions in response to that predicament that make the story. With fantasy, the same is true, but magic or the fantastic are integral to the predicament. The attributes that define a story as science fiction or fantasy are the trappings of genre, not the essence of story. (What I am saying contrasts slightly with E. M. Forster's definitions of story — the response to the endless droning of "And then what happened? And then what happened?" — and plot — which provides us with motivation, emotion, and the answer(s) to the question Why? — in Aspects of the Novel.)

The essence of story, people in a predicament, is true of any story regardless of its genre. Therefore, that reviewer's response to Heffron's book showed that their understanding of science fiction, fantasy, and story was completely awry, and until that is resolved any attempt they make at publication will go unsatisfied.

Heffron's book clearly does not cater to genre, and with good reason. This is why one is best advised to read every book on writing one can find, no matter which genre the book services, if one wishes to learn as much as possible about writing publishable fiction. Better still, read a lot, write a lot. Better than that, become a fiction engineer: read a lot, take apart what you've read, then put it all back together by writing a lot. This is what how-to books try to do: they take stories apart to show you all their nuts-and-bolts to try to show you how it all fits together. One inevitable fault of any how-to book, however, is the difficulty of communicating and demonstrating the holistic nature of fiction. Looking at and analyzing one attribute, description, for example, doesn't do justice to a sentence or a paragraph that seamlessly incorporates description, narration, characterization, and any number of other attributes of fiction.

That said, this book is divided into four parts:

  1. Bending and Stretching — Comprised of chapters 1-4, this part of the book focuses on the most basic and common advice such as if you want to write, you must write (it's amazing the number of people who can't seem to get beyond this most basic idea) and it is best to have a certain time frame set aside for writing (writing, like tennis, requires regular practice if one is to become any good at it). Heffron also addresses the idea that some find it difficult to write, which is a valid point. Writing easily or with difficulty has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of your output. What you write with ease could very well be unpublishable flotsam just as much as what you write with difficulty could be best-seller material. Heffron addresses that ugly beast Procrastination, the Victim mentality, the unproductive habit of talking your stories into non-existence, as well as one's internal critic and one's internal judge. Too, the subject of making lists, freewriting, brainstorming, automatic writing, clustering, and other creative techniques are covered, albeit superficially. There are entire books devoted to some of these subjects — there are several books on clustering alone, for example — if one is so inclined to delve deeper into these techniques.

  2. Exploring — This section makes up the bulk of the book, covering chapters 5-17 (96 pages). Probably my favourite bit of advice found in this section is the following:

    Knowing what to write (...) involves knowing yourself. You will write with passion if you write about topics and people close to your heart. (...) a friend told me he wanted to be a writer but was struggling. He'[d] been a cop for more than fifteen years but was tired of the job. (...) In a few years he [w]ould retire with a full pension, which he planned to use to support himself while he knocked out novels. Crime novels. He has the experience, we agreed. (...) But the pages of what I read were dull, larded with technical jargon and accoutrements of police work. They were weak on plot and character. He clearly was not engaged by the stories. One night while we were talking about how to make his stories more interesting, we drifted to the subject of his collection of beer memorabilia. As he discussed the old beer bottles and vintage advertisements that filled his house, his eyes lit up. He was clearly engaged. We agreed that maybe he was writing about something he didn't really like — police work — (...). He should try, instead, to write about beer stuff. He did, and he has since published several excellent articles in trade magazines.

    The point is that the cliché about writing what you know is wrong. Instead, write about what you like.
    —The Writer's Idea Book, pp. 52-53.

    In many ways, that's a good summary of this section of the book, getting to know yourself so that you write about what you like. In so doing, your passion will gleam brightly through your writing. Sounds like a good point at which to quote Polonius' advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's HamletThis above all: to thine own self be true — despite Polonius' self-satisfaction with his own worldliness and his obvious hypocrisy.

    In fact, this section, "Exploring," is all about exploring self, memories, family, places (you've lived or where you've never been), and more.

  3. Finding Form — Chapters 18–25 make up this section, and I quite enjoyed it. Chapter 19, "Folks Like You," for example, covers characterization. Chapter 20, "The Shape of Things to Come," covers the shape of fiction (makes me think of another book in my library devoted entirely to this subject, Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern). One chapter in this section is devoted to First Person point of view, and it also discusses why this particular viewpoint is often misunderstood and misused, despite being the one to which most neophytes gravitate.

  4. Assessing and Developing — This section of the book — chapters 26-29 — had my mind spinning a mile a minute with everything that I was learning. Imagine, if you can, reading a book on writing, being fully conscious of what you're reading, comprehending it all in its entirety, and at the same time taking two stories that you've written and folding them, bending them, cutting out this bit, adding in that thing, unscrewing this scene, and lubricating . . . well, I'll stop there. No need to risk lewd allusions, eh? "What's at Stake?", the title of Chapter 26, should tell you exactly what it's all about, if you've read any number of books on writing. Chapter 27, "Sitting Still," covers not only the "What if?" question, but addresses also stories that are "one-note wonders." That is, stories whose scenes are naught more than endless repetitions of the same conflict. In essence, they have no modulation. (Sorry for the technical term. Internally I'm comparing this to my Air Force training on the maintenance and repair of microwave radios and their associated multiplexers. If that term — modulation — confuses you, don't worry. I've already started planning a post to explain it.)

With such a long and detailed post it should be obvious that I liked this book. I did not attempt any of the 400+ prompts, but I might try a few later. This book has certainly helped me to expand my understanding of writing fiction, and I'm sure it can do the same for you, too.

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