Pros: Great ideas
Cons: Rambling style (and a few other small, niggly things)
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 6/12/2002
“Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes” sounded awfully gimmicky when I heard of it. As it turned out, the book contains some great ideas. But it would be even better if the author had more experience writing non-fiction books.
The Basic Concept
The basic idea is that you can really let go and write interesting stuff if you set a timer for five minutes, grab a neat writing prompt, and free-write for those five minutes. Okay, okay, Ms. Allen doesn’t call it free-writing. In fact, much of the book feels as though she’s simply re-inventing the idea of free-writing all over again. She explains it as though it’s something new when in fact the concept has been around for quite some time now. However, she does have a rather new and interesting approach to the use of free-writing, and that has value.
First of all, she directly relates these short exercises to the short short story form. (If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a fascinating little form in which you write a story that’s roughly less than 1,000 words, often much shorter. A single paragraph can be an entire story. This is not an easy form to write well.) Her idea is that when you write these exercises, you use them to create entire little stories. Much of her advice for revision, therefore (at least in the first third of the book), is aimed at the needs of the short short story form.
She also sees the five-minute exercise as a stepping stone, or building block, when working on longer fiction. She presents a great deal of information on the use of these exercises in the creation of novels and novellas, in terms of both method and revision.
Part I of this book is “The Short Short Story.” It includes a discussion of the major types of short short story, various examples of the short short story, a comparison with longer stories, ways of generating material for short shorts, and methods for shaping and polishing short shorts.
Part II is “The Exercises.” Here you’ll find pages and pages of writing prompts of all kinds. First comes a series of fifty sets of six prompts, each of which comes in the form of “write a story about…”. Next we are presented with a series of sentences which we are directed to use in our stories. Finally, a collection of black and white photos is meant to inspire us. Only the first of these three sections really impresses me; the others are a bit short.
Part III covers “Writing Longer Stories and Novels.” This includes methods for turning five-minute exercises into longer pieces, ways to approach revision, and typical writing problems seen in novels.
What Works… and What Doesn’t
The first big problem is the fact that the text of this book rambles, babbles, and repeats itself. I get the impression that while Ms. Allen teaches fiction-writing, she hasn’t had a whole lot of experience working on non-fiction. It isn’t an unforgivable sin, but I’d make sure you don’t read this book while you’re sleepy or bored. Probably a fifth to a quarter of the length of this book could have been chopped out without adversely affecting its contents.
The five-minute exercise method itself is quite fascinating. The ideas for working these exercises into longer pieces save this book from being a simple rehashing of free-writing and turn it into a collection of very interesting ideas. If you’re the kind of writer that works best with highly structured outlines and plans, you probably won’t get a lot out of this book. But if you aren’t, I think you could learn a lot here. Ms. Allen’s method takes the chaos of free-writing and marries it with a loose and fluid type of structure, giving you the benefit of both the unconscious and conscious thought processes. (For those of you following along at home, I think her method would work particularly well when combined with the “poetic outline” method from the book The Writer’s Path.)
I had one small problem with Ms. Allen’s approach, however. On the one hand, she makes the (very appropriate) point that when free-writing, you need to let go and allow yourself to “make a mess.” You can’t be thinking of word choice and grammar and comma usage if you really want to just let go and see what your unconscious mind has waiting for you. On the other hand, when discussing examples from her students’ work, she would describe “mistakes” they had made as being ones of “carelessness.” If she wants people who read her book to let go and write what comes into their heads, then you’d think it would be a bad idea to then indicate that making mistakes is careless of them. (Don’t scare people off just as you’ve finished doing such a good job encouraging them!)
This book also nicely balances the ideas of free-writing (letting go and ignoring grammar and other worries) with the recognition that in order to end up with a good, finished product, such concerns do become necessary at some point. I think that Ms. Allen does a good job of showing how you can transition from one approach to the other during the revision process.
Fast Fiction for… Novels?
The one odd thought I kept having throughout the third part of the book, however, was that it seemed weird to pick up a book called “Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes” and find out that a third of the book covered standard problems of novel-writing.
From one point of view it makes sense. A lot of her suggestions covered ways to handle typical problems of novel-writing within the context of her five-minute exercise method. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that this was the last thing someone would be expecting when picking up a book on “fast fiction,” and misleading your audience is never a good idea. So I guess the point of this is… make sure this book is what you want before you buy it. The title isn’t entirely indicative of the contents.
Despite the handful of problems this book has, it’s still very helpful and useful, and I think that most writers could get a lot of value out of its methods and suggestions. So while I’m occasionally tempted to give the book a rating of three, ultimately I believe it deserves four. For while the writing itself is average, the ideas behind that writing are excellent.