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Formulaic and patronising
on March 3, 2002
This is the third "Elements of Fiction Writing" book that I've read. The previous two ("Characters and Viewpoint" , and "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends") are truly excellent, and I have no hesitation in recommending them as both readable and usable.
Unfortunately, this work falls far short of the standards set by the previous two books.
Here's an example of Bickham's writing, excerpted from one of his novels and presented in this book as an example to be emulated:
"A sound like air gun pellets loudly peppered the front wall of his cabin."
In my world, air gun pellets might pepper a wall, but a sound cannot. Perhaps that's just his style? If pulling the reader up short and making him say "huh?" is style, then fine - but personally, I'd expect his examples to be cleaner than this.
As for the assertion that every scene must end with a disaster (OK, he means setback perhaps, but disaster is the term he uses), once again: huh? I've carefully checked several popular novels on my shelves - the sort of work I'd be proud to write - and it just ain't so. That's not to say I've never read novels that follow that formula to a large degree, but they've been just that: formulaic. Perhaps there's money to be made down that road, perhaps it's a way to get published, but it's not for me.
He actually goes further than that. Every scene must begin with a clear statement of goal ("most of the time, the character states his immediate goal in obvious, unmistakable fashion"), to be followed by development of conflict, and finalised by failure to reach the goal. Then there must be sequel - again precisely structured (Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action).
I also found the writing style problematic. The two books I mentioned above were fascinating and engaging, and I finished each in a day or two, but this one is a slog.
As you can probably tell, I'm irritated with this book. If it was a case of Bickham offering guidelines, it would be one thing... but he's implying that this has to be the rule, and that exceptions must be carefully justified. ("Once every hundred scenes, maybe you can get away with allowing the goal to be implicit"). Perhaps that's appropriate for particular genres, but few of the (mainstream) writers whom I admire follow these recipes.