"Fiction Writer's Brainstormer," James V. Smith, Jr.

Pros: Lots of very practical suggestions
Cons: Annoying puzzles; somewhat narrow focus
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 2/7/2002

I don’t know what it is about books lately; so few of them have turned out to be what I expected. Is it the titles? Is it the back-cover blurbs? Is it people giving me the wrong impression when they recommend a book to me? Whatever it is, it’s vaguely annoying. I think this is part of the reason why at first I didn’t like “Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer.” There were a couple of other reasons, too, but eventually they were out-weighed by a plethora of useful information. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Annoying Stuff

I’ll get this out of the way first: the author of this book seems to think that the way to awaken your creativity is to throw lots of little word puzzles at you. Personally I find this annoying. Oh well – what works for one person doesn’t work for another. The puzzles don’t take up the majority of the book luckily, so you can ignore them, look up the answers in the back of the book, or play with them as you please. I found some of the exercises similarly annoying, but again, everyone is different.

At first the author of this book came across as exactly the sort of writing author I dislike. To be more specific: sometimes, particularly early in the book, he comes across as though he’s saying, “My way of writing is right for everyone.” Given the wide variety of types of writing and writing styles out there, this is never a good claim to make. Luckily he turns out to be a much more reasonable person later on in the book.

While the book is titled “Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer,” many of the author’s hints are directed specifically at novel authors. In fact, many are directed specifically at authors of “category novels;” there’s very little in here that takes the short story writer into account. Thus the title is a slight misnomer – it might have been better to call the book the novel writer’s brainstormer. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of material in this book of use to any sort of fiction writer, so this isn’t a huge problem.

In addition, although the title and book jacket seem to indicate that this book is largely about sparking creativity, there’s a lot of other material in here. It’s useful material, but it may not be what you’re expecting if all you’ve seen is the book cover. Because of this, my next topic is…

What This Book Covers

Part 1 of this book covers “10 Brainstormer Strategies.” Mr. Smith talks about everything from thinking outside the box to rejecting conventional wisdom, acting a little crazy, imagining impossible standards for yourself, simplifying, and on and on. These hints occupy the first 50 pages of the book, and they are very useful. This isn’t simply a pep talk; Mr. Smith provides tools, checklists, suggestions, strategies, and even examples from his own and others’ writing. (Not to mention a bunch of fun quotes.)

I found many of Mr. Smith’s suggestions to be useful, but I didn’t agree with all of them. As with any writing book, don’t follow the suggestions that you read blindly. Try things, experiment, see how things work, and then decide for yourself. What convinces me that Mr. Smith is really an okay kind of guy is that in many cases he’ll give you this same advice himself.

Part two of this book covers “The Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer In Action.” As you might guess from the title, you’ll find all sorts of ideas for coming up with, well, ideas. Mr. Smith covers story elements, the nuts and bolts of a story, characters, creative scenes, word choice, style, mechanics, and even revision and editing. This part seems particularly well-aimed at novel writers, addressing such things as the structure and pacing of a novel. On the other hand, things like characters, scenes, and word choice are issues that all fiction writers face, and much of his advice carries over.

This part of the book takes up more than 150 pages. Again, it goes deeply into practical suggestions, tools, forms, checklists, and all sorts of other handy things. His method for coming up with good titles sounds like a very handy tool – with its help I think even I could create a good title!

The final part of this book addresses “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Writers.” I’m making use of the author’s first suggestion right now – I’m using speech recognition software to dictate this review. It takes some time to get used to, and I started using it because of tendonitis problems rather than fiction issues, but I do agree that it can be very useful. I would have liked to see more practical suggestions for how to make use of it, rather than simple cheerleading, however. I find that thinking vocally and thinking through my fingers can be two very different skills, and some tips on how to move from the latter to the former would have been nice.

Habit number two involves knowing when to package material for a set of smaller books. Habit three is knowing when you have the right amount of material for a big book. Habit four is understanding that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Habit five is using transitions and tie-backs. Habit six is using advanced images. Seven is stunning dialogue. There’s even a bonus eighth habit in case seven just isn’t enough.

I don’t think I need to tell you again that all these sections include very practical suggestions for making these habits work for you! If you need any further indication, I went through most of a package of Post-It flags marking the useful pages in this book.

Who Is This Book For?

This book is probably most useful for novel writers with a little bit of experience under their belts. Not necessarily a published novel, but at least some idea of how to go about writing one. If anything I’d say it’s most useful for people who are trying to make the transition from writer to published writer. There’s plenty of information on what publishers are looking for, how publishers think, and how you can catch their eye.

The focus is on creating fiction that will sell, not necessarily creating fiction that you will be happy with, so you should be aware of that before you buy this book. If you’re only planning on writing for yourself, then you might find some other book more useful to you.

Although some parts of this book annoyed me, others embarrassed me. I learned a lot about my own writing while reading this (not all of it good!), and I think this will improve my writing a great deal. I look forward to trying some of the things that Mr. Smith suggested. In short, I recommend this book to all writers of fiction. It has some great suggestions, some fantastic tools to give you a helping hand, and plenty of solid strategies to work with. I do suggest, however, that you not accept everything in this book blindly. Read other books on writing as well. Use your own common sense. Experiment, play around, and see what works best for you.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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