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Posted March 2, 2013
The Fiction Writer's Handbook is probably not what you would expect from the title. It is not arranged into chapters with titles like "How to Begin" or "How to Get Published." In fact it's not arranged into chapters at all, but rather an alphabetical "list of entries" with terms like "antagonist," "flash fiction" and "verb tenses." Some entries, like "first-draft strategy" (where the author suggests you start) and "revision" (where the author suggests you go next) are longer articles filled with ideas to improve your writing, while others are merely brief definitions of literary terms. Every entry contains words in SMALL CAPS indicating terms that can be found elsewhere in the book (in the e-book edition these are hyperlinks that allow the reader to go directly to the entry locations).
If this format seems like it would be difficult to read cover-to-cover, that's because it is. It's not meant to be read cover-to-cover, nor is it meant to be read in one sitting. The idea is to skip around, read the entries that interest you, and use them to improve your writing or at least your editing. I almost think of it as a book of editing prompts.
Shelly Lowenkopf also includes a bibliography of suggested reading that includes not only other non-fiction titles about the writing process, but many fiction titles as well, because as he sees it, every serious writer must also be a serious reader. Amen to that.
Personally, I do a lot more reading than I do writing these days (you can tell by the awkwardness of this very sentence) so I found the book interesting for other reasons. I enjoyed reading about the techniques fiction writers employ and the common mistakes they make. It was nice to find the words to describe things I notice in books all the time, like the "information dump": (when the writer can't help throwing in ALL the things they learned in their research, whether the story needs it or not), "talking heads" (having characters engage in long passages of dialogue with little reaction, gestures, inflection or subtext) and "purple prose" (when the author's obvious "love of words" completely overtakes the story with excessive metaphor, romantic language and flowery description).
In other words, if I become a more astute critic of writers' foibles in my upcoming reviews, y'all have Shelly Lowenkopf to blame! In fact, forget about writers and readers; this book should be required reading for reviewers.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for writing a review, though the review did not necessarily need to be favourable, just honest. I frequently read and review books for this reason, but I am always very truthful (and, I hope, fair) in my reviews. Therefore any opinions expressed are strictly my own.
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