Whenever one writer speaks to others about the craft, someone is sure to cite “rules” promulgated by a book on how to write. The book in question  may have even been written by an accomplished author, although such is rarely the case. (Real artists are generally too busy to pen self-help books, and their artistry is intuitive, coming from deep within their souls, not something that can readily be taught to others.)  Successful fiction writers are well aware that there are no hard and fixed “rules”, only guidelines and suggestions that work for them, but there is no one path to a good work of fiction. Of course we can all agree that a book ought to be readable and intelligible (then again, there was James Joyce), and cause us to be emotionally invested in the characters and plot so that we keep turning the pages, but beyond that, it’s an open field. That’s why  critical feedback from others is of the greatest value whereas being told that there are rules one needs to follow is for the most part useless, even counterproductive. When a writer receives feedback from several people, he or she can see what is working and what is not; perhaps the best and most achievable rule is to listen to constructive criticism and use it to provide readers with better quality writing.

I rely mainly on my writers’ group for feedback and suggestions and every writer should be affiliated with such a group. See my earlier post on Keybangers Bangkok. 

That does not mean that writers should never heed what others in the field  have to say about the craft; often some guideline or suggestion about the art will resonate and be of help. This includes those who write books on how to write. But the tail should not wag the dog, and the creative spirit should not be straightjacketed by a nonexistent set of rules. I have greatly enjoyed reading Stephen King’s books on the art of fiction, most notably On Writing, because he gives the reader his insights into literature rather than a step-by-step guide to writing a novel. (There is no such guide.)

However, there is one book which I have found worthwhile,  because rather than setting inflexible rules, it provides a platform and strategy for each author to best develop their ideas and talents. The book is How to Write Killer Fiction:The Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat (Daniel & Daniel Publishers, 2003)[Available on Amazon].  As the title suggests, it is primarily aimed at mystery and suspense writing, but all  fiction authors will benefit from her advice on how to lay out a novel, and what techniques work best in given situations. Her advice on grammar, character, dialogue and plot are applicable for all genres. Her suggestions on how to work with or without an outline are useful to novice or experienced writers. Her section on endings is especially powerful guidance. She skillfully distinguishes between mystery and suspense and offers sound advice on writing in both genres. She also addresses the differences between writing from an outline or on a “blank page.”

Ms. Wheat has written several first rate mystery novels featuring as their protagonist  criminal defense lawyer Cass Jamison; she has also written several short stories, teaches creative writing in workshops and has been a college writer in residence. Ms. Wheat herself was a criminal defense lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Full disclosure: we were friends and colleagues, though we have not met or spoken in many decades.)

I have read How to Write Killer Fiction several times and referred to it often when writing the novel I just finished. Her suggestions on the various sections of a novel and her recommendations on the role of characters were most helpful, as were some of her suggestions on the technical aspects of writing. (I did not find that everything she says worked for me, but Ms. Wheat herself acknowledges that many times in her book. She encourages us to take what works for us and ignore that which does not.)

I recommend reading the book before you start your next novel; it’s advice will set you on the right track. Refer to it as you wind your way from opening to middle to ending. Hope it helps you as much as it did me!

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