Calling all fiction writers! Is your manuscript flabby, dull and nearly dead? If yes, you need a full shot of Raymond Obstfeld’s Fiction First Aid. Read fiction writer, teacher and editor Belea K. Keeney‘s review of this how-to book below to give you the help you may desperately need. Thank you, Belea for this terrific review!
Has your manuscript stopped breathing? Are its characters lifeless? Would CPR help bring your story back to viability and readability? Then Raymond Obstfeld’s Fiction First Aid may be just what the doctor ordered.
Divided into six large chapters, Obstfeld covers topics such as Plot, Characterization, Setting, Style, Theme, and The Writer’s Life. Each section within the chapter outlines a specific prose problem (like wallpaper settings or flat characterization), and offers solutions. Each writing problem is presented as a health issue, each with symptoms, ailment, diagnosis, and treatment. Some sections even have a physical therapy component, which are writing exercises to help overcome the specific ailment being “treated.”
Each chapter offers examples and analysis, often using popular books and movies to make his points. By using these throughout the material, Obstfeld is able to function as a writing teacher; it is a solid strategy.
The chapter on Plot covers problems such as predictable plots, ho-hum suspense, and flat payoff scenes. Obstfeld has treatments clearly laid out for rushing, underexposure, and overly mechanical plots including choosing scenes to show character, deliberately studying stories in your genre, and not relying on classic storylines too closely.
The chapter on Characterization includes coverage on insufficient character motivation, predictable traits, low stakes, and one-dimensional or overly evil antagonists. Setting problems, such as under/over description, clumping, and low-impact settings, are covered in Chapter Three. Chapter Four on Style encompasses bland phrasing, overwriting, emotionally shallow characters, and gender-inaccurate details, to name a few. Theme issues discussed in Chapter Five are melodrama, lack of or overbearing use of symbols, and the photocopy effect. Taking the material beyond craft itself, Chapter Six covers The Writer’s Life with advice on common questions such finding time to write, outlining, workshops, and revising a manuscript.
Here’s an example of Obstfeld’s hands-on style: Chapter Three discusses settings and asks writers to consider this element in relation to both the story development and characters.
“How significant is setting to the development of the characters’ personalities and/or to the plot conflicts?”
Clearly, he says, Moby Dick, Grapes of Wrath, or Heart of Darkness all have settings that affect the story in important ways. And if this is so in your story, then you need to go deeper into your setting.
A setting can help set the tone and mood of a story. A quarrel held in a flower shop has one feel; one set in front of a shark tank has an entirely different tone. But even for stories with less impactful settings, a writer can still go wrong, he cautions. In wallpaper settings, Obstfeld distinguishes between those that are bland, “…lies passively in the background, not actively contributing to the story” and gaudy, which “screams for attention and distracts the reader from the story.” For the bland problem, he suggests a setting in which the characters affect the surrounding and vice versa. For the gaudy, Obstfeld tells writers to tone down the volume of description and to let characters interact with each other, in addition to interacting with the setting.
Obstfeld’s advice feels real and addresses the general problems of style, plot, and theme that affect many writers. He outlines various tactics to use, giving specific how-tos on developing a style, oversimplified plots, rehashed stories, and using symbols to reinforce a story’s theme. He’s published dozens of books, including mysteries, action/adventure, sci-fi, and thrillers; clearly he has a firm grasp on the elements of successful genre fiction.
Fiction First Aid is a terrific addition to any fiction writer’s library. Just flipping through the chapters, a writer can find a problem—and solution—to common fiction writing issues. If you have a specific issue that you’ve already identified, you can find a section that will probably help solve the problem. If you’re not exactly sure what the trouble is, Obstfeld’s thorough handling of the variety of symptoms, ailments and treatments for fiction writing issues might help.
My copy is highlighted, with worn pages, and notes scribbled in the margins. It’s a book I frequently recommend to writing students, and its nitty-gritty analysis of writing problems is stellar. I refer to this gem of a how-to book often.
Give Fiction First Aid a try. It may be the jump-start your story needs.
Fiction First Aid: Instant Remedies for Novels, Stories, and Scripts
by Raymond Obstfeld Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN: 1-58297-050-5 290 pages $18.99, trade paperback Available new, used, online, and in stores
About Belea T. Keeney
Belea T. Keeney has published three short story collections, and works as an editor for Samhain Publishing, Torquere Press, and a variety of private freelance clients. She especially enjoys working on paranormals, horror, romances, memoir, and most anything written about horses. Find out about her class, “Writing Popular Fiction and Memoir,” that gives students hands-on experience at crafting their own stories at www.beleatkeeney.com.