There are a lot of books out there about how not to write badly but there are very few
about how to write well. James Wood's How Fiction Works is one of the best. The first
chapter, titled Narrating, contains critically important information for the fiction writer. The
essence of the lesson, and it is hard to do it justice in a few sentences, is that excellent
contemporary fiction differs from its predecessors in that it the author's presence is entirely
absent. The reader becomes the character, inhabiting the character's consciousness. The
reader, employing all of the character's senses, becomes the designated perceiver. And the
reader is free to interpret these perceptions independently. This style of writing goes by
several names but Wood likes "free indirect style."
The second chapter tracks the birth and development of free indirect style in modern
literature, citing Flaubert as its originator and James as its master. These two chapters,
circa 60 pages, comprise the essence of the lesson, with the rest of the book essentially
a PhD thesis on the birth of modernity in literary fiction. Interesting to be sure, but not
remotely as informative as the first 60 pages, especially for beginners.
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