Review: A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon

A Writer's Guide to Fiction
A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars Ten Years Later

This book has… an interesting place in my heart. It’s the first book on writing I ever read. I remember walking into Barnes and Nobles (or was it Borders?) with my mom, and she bought a copy for me. She must have bought it when it was first published in 2004, or sometime after that. Which makes sense. Ten years ago, I was ten years old, and by that time, I had declared to the world in some shape or another, that I wanted to be a writer.

I remember reading bits and pieces, but I don’t remember reading all of it. I remember liking it, but when I joined Goodreads and placed a review on it for 3 stars, I was hesitant. It had been ten years since I read the book. A lot has happened in those ten years. I know way more about writing. I’m actively reading books on writing now. I had to give it another chance.

Though… now I kind of see why I might have put it down when I was ten.

From what I’ve observed. There are two types of writing books out there in the market: those that specialize on one particular topic such as characterization, plot, dialogue, etc., and those that try to cram every aspect of fiction in into short, readable chapters. Elizabeth Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction falls into the latter, and it is exactly what it says it is—“A Guide.” It’s not your ticket to publishing stardom, and not the end-all of writing books. It has some good explanations and tips.

However, in writing books of this kind, there is always a danger of leaving points of guidance out that would confuse a beginning writer, or even an intermediate writer, due to their omission. One of the examples, is a tip that Lyon gives on dialogue: “Do limit dialogue to three interchanges, thoughts, or as they say in screenplay terminology, ‘beats'”(172). I understand why the tip is there: so writers can prevent the phenomenon of talking heads, and lose reader interest. But… why only three interchanges? Does that mean each character can only speak three times in one scene?

Also, why does second person get love, but not first or third? As Lyon tells the reader about second-person point of view, she encourages them to “craft a short story that uses this viewpoint exclusively,” and add it to their “repertoire for limited, but powerful use, in other pieces.” This statement is a clear, direct, “Try this!”-sort of encouragement statement. But first- and third-person just get commentary. Lyon remarks that while first-person to be the “easiest,” it requires “a lot of finesse.” Similarly, in regards to the omniscient third-person, Lyon says that it may take a near “Pulitzer level of skill to write superbly in this viewpoint choice.”

Well… great. I don’t have a Pulitzer level of skill at the moment. I know that Lyon has given me a nudge in the direction with the example she provides of the omniscient third-person point of view, but it’s not as big of a nudge as telling someone to craft an entire short story in second-person. Perhaps she assumed her readers were familiar with first- and third-person point of view already, and just left it alone. Or perhaps I’m taking it far too seriously, and Lyon is just saying that with writing well in any point of view, you need a lot of practice—practice to get to the “Pulizter level”. Which is fine, I suppose, but… I don’t think it was the best way to phrase that.

Anyway, my point is that this guide, in general, is fine as a guide. You will learn about scene structure, the Hero’s Journey, character development, tips, and all the other bases a beginner should be aware of. Lyon also recommends excellent writing books, and hails their equally important authors, throughout the book itself for you to get excited and move on to the next step of your writing journey. But it’s not a Bible, nor is it the perfect guide, because I find that it does not cover bases as equally as I would have liked. It will not provide you exercises to help you solidify the techniques. If you decide to get a copy, read it with a few grains of salt.

I recommend it to beginning fiction writers, but I want to spare future ten-year-olds the possible confusion that I may have encountered reading the book ten years ago. Just use it as a jumping point, and don’t take every word to heart.

P.S. In the example she gave of a query letter, I could swear that the protagonist is Angie and not Tahara, as Lyon writes from 221-225. If you happen to pick up a copy, let me know.

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