Last week, I posted an article with several tips for beginning writers. I recommended observing how established writers crafted their prose, joining a critique group, and studying writing how-to books. In the post, which you can see here, I reviewed--and recommended--Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
This week, my book recommendation is Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress. It is part of the series Elements of Fiction Writing.
As might be expected, the book is divided into three clear parts:
Part I: Beginnings
Part II: Middles
Part III: Endings (Note the title says "ends" but the book mentions "endings"--just a small detail I wanted to share.)
Each part is comprised of three chapters brimming with explanations, advice, examples and exercises. I must admit there is so much information in each chapter that it might seem overwhelming at first. For example, in Chapter 1, called The Very Beginning: Your Opening Scene, Kress highlights the importance of knowing your story's implicit promise to readers. She then goes on to describe characterization, conflict, specificity and credibility. Once she has described the elements of a successful beginning, she comments on how to put them all together to create an opening that works.
Because there is so much valuable information, Kress has added a summary and several exercises to the end of each chapter. The exercises are designed to make you reflect on various aspects of story building so, unlike last week's book, Beginning, Middles and Ends doesn't contain a suggested answer key.
I personally recommend reading each chapter through from start to finish, and then going back for a slower read with a highlighter and a pencil to jot down notes.
When describing techniques to build successful middles, Kress delves into how to develop the promise established in the beginning, choosing the direction of your story, planning the climax, tackling character development, and overcoming writer's block. All great information to get you through to the end!
As for endings, the author sums up their importance beautifully:
"At its beginning, a story makes the kind of implicit promise we've discussed throughout the book. In the middle, the development of both characters and conflict extends that promise by arranging forces in opposition to each other. We see, through skillfully chosen patterns of events, various problems and tensions come closer and closer to collision. Then comes the ending. It must use those same characters, conflicts, problems and tensions to show us the collision (the climax)."
From here on, Kress offers advice on how to deliver the story's promise, how to portray the climax and denouement, and how to reach the very end: the last paragraph, the last line. This is particularly great, since sometimes we need a helping hand up to the last period.
Apart from offering writing techniques, Beginnings, Middles and Ends is a great addition to any writer's collection because it also offers moral support. Yep. Kress is aware of the turmoil we authors constantly live in. She knows, ooohhh how she knows! She even includes sections in her book dedicated exclusively to getting writers out of a rut:
"Common reasons for getting stuck on either a short story or a novel are fear of failure, fear of success, literary fogginess, and wrong direction. In addition, novelists may get stuck if they become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of writing a novel: in the page count, the time investment, and the stamina required."
Kress then goes on to explain each of the reasons for getting stuck, and she mentions techniques to help get unstuck. In addition, she adds in a short section about techniques that won't get you unstuck.
To sum up Beginnings, Middles and Ends--and what a great addition it makes to every writer's bookshelf--, I would like to share a review written by A. Wolverton on Amazon.com:
"After reading 'Beginnings, Middles and Ends,' any beginning writer will have many of the tools needed to put together a good story or novel. Kress takes the reader through a step-by-step process that makes you think, 'It's so simple. Why didn't I think of that?' It's so simple because Kress has expertly targeted the areas that most writers have trouble with and has offered workable solutions. Her writing is very clear and readable. The examples and exercises alone are worth the price of the book. If you are interested in writing fiction and can only buy one book, this is the one."