“Finally bought Shelly Lowenkopf‘s handbook. The last word in writing fiction. I’m lucky to be able to say that Shelly is my editor. Together, we shaped my virgin voyage, The Last Day for Rob Rhino into a two time award winner. In fact, he will be hard at work making sense of my newest mess next week. If you’re wondering why I would engage Shelly’s services when I could read the book instead – you don’t know as much about writing as you thought. You need this book. It’s a gem. Great gift for yourself or the writer in your life for Christmas.” – Kathleen O’Donnell

“I’ve been attending writing conferences and writing for years and I’ve found things in The Fiction Writer’s Handbook I’d never heard of. It has already given me insight into a couple of problems my current book has in it! LOL. Love it when that happens!” – Gracie Stanners 

“I learned more from Mr. Lowenkopf’s book than from any class or workshop on fiction writing.. Every term explained. A true treasure chest from a lifetime teaching fiction writing. In Mr. Thomas McCormack’s book I felt if only the editors in New York Publishing would read and practice what’s advised in this book, we’d have better edited novels. Ditto Mr. Lowenkopf’s indispensable volume– an amazing reference for every writer. For novice writers? I wish some of the published writers would use these two books. Editing has hit the skids. I find errors of grammar.. basic grammar– like the objective pronoun “I” where “me” was correct. Editors need to take a lot of lessons, take editing refresher courses. I find violation of point of view. Overuse of -ly adverbs in The Goldfinch. 780 pages that could easily be cut to 380 without losing any of the story.. Few really edit anymore. Sad.” – Gina Rose St John

“I bought this on Kindle, but found it too rich to keep only there, so I ordered a ‘real’ copy to have handy, not especially to look things up to deepen my knowledge, as one would use a dictionary, but just to flip open and read a few entries at random. Each entry is written with a wonderful combination of authority and humor (unlike dictionaries). Anyway, I couldn’t look up many of the entries in this book as I didn’t know about them until I found them here – hence it is a great source of  ‘new knowledge’ for this aspiring writer.” – Jan Hull

“If you happen to be looking for a reference book to assist with your fiction writing and happen to discover one with a foreword written by your favorite author, you pretty much have no choice but to purchase it.

That selling point for me aside, this seems like an excellent reference tool and I see myself returning to it frequently in the short term future.”  -Aric Peterson, Abington, MA

“This book is a fiction writer’s bible. The way it is linked back and forth through all the terms makes it a treasure trove of useful information. I use it every day.” – Suzanna Stinnett, CORTE MADERA, CA

“You hear this about so many writing instruction guides, but in my case it is the absolute truth. Shelly Lowenkopf covers every possible angle from A-Z (literally). His insights will always lead you and your writing down the right path. It will not necessarily make that path any easier but it will certainly make the destination sweeter when you arrive.” – tonyacls

“Through the fifty-odd years I’ve been writing, I have read innumerable books on the subject. Shelly Lowenkopf‘s The Fiction Writer’s Handbook surprised me. It’s sort of a cross between a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a Who’s Who? of multi-genre authors and styles. It compares differences between words-to-be-read and words to be spoken on stage in a theater, on film and on screen. The differences between the genres and the similarities. The gamut of topics is located easily in an alphabetical listing at the beginning of the book, with direct links to related subjects. Personally, I found that browsing through the listings was particularly rewarding, perusing subjects I wouldn’t have thought to search out before. Then, too, these same subjects created interest and curiosity leading to ideas and situations that might well develop into further writing projects. The variety within this Handbook, and the ease with which the plethora of information is made available has made itself a Handbook to keep close at hand permanently.

(Although I’ve been told that McGuffin is an old term, it must be older than I, since I’d never heard of it.)” -A. McGill, Ajijic, Mexico

“I gave this book five stars for the simple reason that if you are a writer, publisher, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry, this is your dictionary. This isn’t the kind of book to be read cover to cover, it is a reference book.

This book is full of terms used by people in the publishing world and a definition of exactly what that term means in reference to books and writing. Each term then goes on to give writings that are good examples of these terms. Looking for an example of ‘the Choking Doberman’? The medical thriller and famous television show House, M.D. is a perfect example. Need a good example of ‘chick lit’? The author Candace Bushnell is a master. Need to know how to plan your chapters? William Faulkner‘s As I Lay Dying is worth an entire university course according to Shelly Lowenkopf. You get my point.

Despite my love of print books, one could argue that this is the perfect book to be read in eBook format. In eBook format each entry has links to follow to corresponding entries which I found very useful (the paperback version I’m sure has these prompts to look up similar entries, it would just require a little more page flipping).

The bottom line, I think this book is an excellent reference for writers to add to their shelf right next to their thesaurus and dictionary to be referred to over and over again.” – SpazGirl “Kristina”, Ft Myers, FL

“I have to admit that I was very excited to get The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf. I’m a writer who is growing all the time. I love to get resources to help me.

Well, when I opened it up, it wasn’t what I expected. Then again, I’m not sure what I had expected. Even describing is not easy. It is a cross between an encyclopedia for writers and a how-to book for writers. I think I was looking for a book that you read from beginning to end. No. With this book, you can open it up anywhere and read a section.

For example, I turned to ‘Family’. I got all the definitions of family plus a few I had never thought of. From there, the definitions slide into how it can be applied to writing. That doesn’t even explain it well. The author explains how a family knows each other in ways that others do not and the many different levels families possess. When I pulled back and read it again, I began to see how handy that would really be for me.

I was looking for a how-to kind of book. Instead I found a uniquely written writer’s encyclopedia/how-to book. You cannot just read it straight through. There is way too much info on each page to do that. You’ll find yourself having to read sections over and over again not because they are hard to understand but because there is no way to get it all in one reading. This is a book you’ll be reading years from now and still only scratch the surface on how it can help you.

This is a book that I’ll be referring to later today, tomorrow, and next year. It’s one that I think every writer, even seasoned ones, needs.” – Rebecca Graf, Wisconsin

The Fiction Writer’s Handbook isn’t meant to be read cover to cover. Like Fowler’s English Usage or Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it invites you to browse from topic to topic, finding all sorts of interesting facts and ideas along the way. As the author writes in the preface: ‘ Open the book anywhere, read an article, then follow the trail of links as far as it takes you. … You’ll see the intent and purpose in a dramatic way.’ He’s right about that.

The entry for ‘portal,’ for example, leads to ‘alternative universe,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘”counterpoint,’ and ‘satire.’ Oops, ‘counterpoint’ also has a link to ‘pathos,’ an entry that doesn’t exist (I hope that missing link was caught in the final proofs; my copy was for advance readers).

Intriguing entries include ‘chick lit,’ ‘the domino theory,’ ‘the drunk in the parking lot,’ ‘the choking Doberman,’ ‘the unthinkable come to pass,’ and ‘Schrödinger’s cat.’ As an editor, I especially like ‘raisins in the matzo’ as an example of how too much embellishment ruins good writing.

Full of valuable advice, this book is also fun to read. The bibliography is limited to books the author insists are not mere recommendations but essential to the craft. I wish it included more of the many novels mentioned in the text.” –Fran “Tekchik”, Portland, OR

The Fiction Writer’s Handbook is probably not what you would expect from the title. It is not arranged into chapters with titles like ‘How to Begin’ or ‘How to Get Published.’ In fact it’s not arranged into chapters at all, but rather an alphabetical ‘list of entries’ with terms like ‘antagonist,’ ‘flash fiction’ and ‘verb tenses.’ Some entries, like ‘first-draft strategy’ (where the author suggests you start) and ‘revision’ (where the author suggests you go next) are longer articles filled with ideas to improve your writing, while others are merely brief definitions of literary terms. Every entry contains words in SMALL CAPS indicating terms that can be found elsewhere in the book (in the e-book edition these are hyperlinks that allow the reader to go directly to the entry locations).

If this format seems like it would be difficult to read cover-to-cover, that’s because it is. It’s not meant to be read cover-to-cover, nor is it meant to be read in one sitting. The idea is to skip around, read the entries that interest you, and use them to improve your writing or at least your editing. I almost think of it as a book of editing prompts.

Shelly Lowenkopf also includes a bibliography of suggested reading that includes not only other non-fiction titles about the writing process, but many fiction titles as well, because as he sees it, every serious writer must also be a serious reader. Amen to that.

Personally, I do a lot more reading than I do writing these days (you can tell by the awkwardness of this very sentence) so I found the book interesting for other reasons. I enjoyed reading about the techniques fiction writers employ and the common mistakes they make. It was nice to find the words to describe things I notice in books all the time, like the ‘information dump’: (when the writer can’t help throwing in ALL the things they learned in their research, whether the story needs it or not), ‘talking heads’ (having characters engage in long passages of dialogue with little reaction, gestures, inflection or subtext) and ‘purple prose’ (when the author’s obvious ‘love of words’ completely overtakes the story with excessive metaphor, romantic language and flowery description).

In other words, if I become a more astute critic of writers’ foibles in my upcoming reviews, y’all have Shelly Lowenkopf to blame! In fact, forget about writers and readers; this book should be required reading for reviewers.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for writing a review, though the review did not necessarily need to be favourable, just honest. I frequently read and review books for this reason, but I am always very truthful (and, I hope, fair) in my reviews. Therefore any opinions expressed are strictly my own.”- Mary Lavers “CozyLittleBookJournal”, Dartmouth, NS, Canada

“Although I have gone through this once already I think this is going to be a book for me to keep going back to as I dive into writing. It has great information for a new writer. I don’t think this is a book I will ever truly finish. I will need to keep going back to it again and again.” -Persephone

“In spite of initially being put off by Christopher Moore’s rather snarky forward attacking traditional literary scholarship, I was excited to read what promised to be a really different sort of writing book. Rather than a series of chapters covering familiar concepts in fiction writing—character, setting, dialog, and so forth—the book is structured as an alphabetical series of mini-essays on terms ranging from Conflict to Authorial Intervention to Chick Lit. Each of these entries or articles then contains several cross-references to related entries, allowing a reader to discover and follow links between the many aspects of writing. The idea is to dip in, either at random or in search of a particular concept, and then let the book take you somewhere else, perhaps somewhere unexpected. Of course, many such handbooks already exist for students of literature, but I believe this is the first of its type geared specifically towards students of fiction writing.

Lowenkopf has clearly thought through his craft and has a wealth of insight to share with his students. He gives lots of examples, drawn from a wide range of literary (and non-literary) models, and he takes seriously both literary and genre fiction. In spite of its promise, though, the book just didn’t pay off for me. The author’s strong opinions give his writing verve, but they can also obfuscate and confuse. The specific terms Lowenkopf chooses to define—and not to define—seem idiosyncratic to the point that could leave a beginning student in the dark and a more advanced writer puzzled. Many terms commonly-used in craft texts and fiction workshops are here (Epiphany, Hubris, Deus Ex Machina, Information Dump, and the like). But there are, for instance, no definitions of ‘Motive’ or ‘Setting,’ terms which a student of fiction is far more likely to encounter (and therefore need defined) than Lowenkopf’s preferred substitutes: ‘Agenda’ and ‘Arena.’ There’s nothing on rising and falling action, but several pages on alternate universes. There are longish entries on Captain Ahab, Lionel Essrog, and Sherlock Holmes. Certainly these characters are worth studying, but are they more essential than hundreds of others?

As much as the content, though, the structure of the book–the very thing that separates it from so many other volumes on the craft of fiction–will be a hindrance to at least some writers seeking help or advice. If you ignore the cross-references, many of the entries resemble definitions you could find in any book or website on the craft, though often more eccentric, and consequently less immediately clear. If you follow the linkages frequently, however, you’re down the rabbit hole, lost in an endlessly self-referential maze. No doubt some readers will find this fun and fascinating, but others, including me, will find it mostly frustrating.

I read this as an e-book, and my final observations apply only to this version. Hypertext seems an ideal medium for a project in which a reader is encouraged to move from entry to entry, following the logic of linkages as well as his or her own curiosity. But there were some problems. Lowenkopf’s preface explains that when you ‘see a WORD rendered in CAPS or a hyperlink, you’ll find an article of definition for that word or phrase.’ I could discover no logic, however, for which words are linked and which merely capitalized. Why, for instance, in the sentence, ‘Whether the story is genre or LITERARY, agenda is an essential presence,’ is ‘genre’ given as a link while ‘LITERARY’ is not? Does the author assume that a reader of this particular article may have an urgent need for a definition of genre but doesn’t need to know right away what a literary story is? Also, a number of terms appear in capitals, when, in fact, there is no article on that term. (‘MOTIVE’ is one of these.) Finally, several of the links in the e-book are non-functional, including nearly every link to the crucial term ‘reader.’

Bottom line: while this might be a useful tool for a student newly enrolled in a creative writing program or for a very particular type of reader and writer, it is of rather limited value to someone looking for straightforward help with the craft of writing. There are many gems buried in here, certainly, but they are just too hard to find among the glass.” -Janet Gardner

“The concept of this book is rather interesting and is laid out in dictionary format, and as such would not be read cover to cover, yet this is exactly what I recommend you do.

This is a collection of literary terms and articles and the e-book version which is the one I had access to is full of links which you can read and follow. This in turn leads you on a literary voyage of discovery.” -Julie Goucher

“I was interested in this book initially because I am in the process of writing my first novel. I am an amateur writer who has always wanted to write this one particular story but who hasn’t quite gotten it all down yet. I had hoped that this handbook would help me through the process and it definitely has.

The Fiction Writer’s Handbook is not the type of book that you read cover to cover. Rather, it is a reference book, more like an encyclopedia or dictionary.” -Cayt Landis

“The first sentence tells us the book ‘is a tool for writers of fiction and for readers who love story.’ Lowenkopf writes that he was ‘bored with books on how to write and how to read that begin with explanations’ so ‘instead of a table of contents, you’ll find a list of entries.’ In other words, this is structured as a dictionary of 366 terms which one might find in a writing workshop or creative writing course. Lowenkopf has taught such courses for years. (Christopher Moore, a bestselling author and one of his students, wrote this book’s Foreword.) According to the short biography on his blog, Lowenkopf has also been ‘an editor for general trade, literary, scholarly, and massmarket book publishers… he’s seen well [over] 500 books through the editorial process into bookstores.’

I don’t care for this format. The topics just don’t flow into each other, much material is repetitive, and this isn’t a good book to sit down and read cover to cover. There’s a place for specialized dictionaries. No law student or lawyer would be without the latest edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. But it’s an aide for when you come across a term you don’t know, not the primary way you learn law. A hierarchical organization that brings related ideas together is the best way to learn any material. I’d have preferred traditional chapters, each one dealing with a topic such as plot, character, genre, etc. Mind you, this format with its frequent references in small caps to other entries would have been awesome in a hypertext ebook. But between covers?

Then there’s content. The entries weren’t always as clear as they could be. For instance, under ‘attribution’ Lowenkopf warns against reaching for synonyms for the word ‘said’ in dialogue tagging; ‘said’ is a ‘blind word’ that disappears into the narrative. But he writes that ‘verbs that convey feelings’ could be so substituted. An example of what he meant would have helped there. Moreover, I found the political sensibilities of the author more blatant than in any other book on writing I’ve read. See, for instance, the entries ‘a cock-and-bull story’ and ‘the concept-driven story.’ As soon as we hit the entry ‘defensiveness’ I was sure Atlas Shrugged would come up, and I wasn’t wrong. And incidentally, it’s John Galt, not ‘Gault.’ Not the only mistake I caught about a book. Byatt’s Possession, for instance, doesn’t involve an American scholar–that’s the filmed adaptation; To Kill a Mockingbird does involve race relations, but not slavery; The Crystal Cave is by Mary Stewart, not Renault. These might just be cases of carelessness, and I was reading from an Uncorrected Proof, but I was left wondering if Lowenkopf had really read the books he cited as examples. I did love Lowenkopf’s use of frequent literary examples. I wish there had been an index, or at least a listing, of all the works he cited. I appreciated the Bibliography–although I didn’t appreciate he recommended his own books. Shameless self-promotion is off-putting and it made me wonder just how many listed works, not just in the Bibliography but in examples used throughout, were chosen because the author was connected in some way to Lowenkopf. As with the political bias and mistakes about the contents of books, it erodes credibility.

There are some nuggets of wisdom in this book, without doubt. It’s useful to know that the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary set the standard for usage in the American publishing industry; I appreciated learning details concerning manuscript format found in such entries as ‘two-line space break.’ I loved the distinctions Lowenkopf drew between deadpan, irony and sarcasm. I wish more writers, both wannabe and professional, would read his entry on ‘intensity in language’ and take to heart its admonishment that intensity should be conveyed through words–particularly dialogue with gesture and expression–and not such devices as ‘italics or exclamation points or all cap lettering.’ I liked his suggestion that to familiarize yourself with a genre such as romance, mystery or fantasy read 100 ‘first generation’ classics and then the well-known works published in the last five years. His advice to beginning writers to write two thousand words a day, read two books a week, and revise a work eight to ten times is a good rule of thumb–assuming you don’t have to sleep or work for a living. His suggestions in ‘first-draft strategy,’ ‘writer’s block’ and ‘revision’ sound as if they’re worth trying. However, there was little to nothing I hadn’t seen echoed in other books on fiction writing.

I first learned about writing craft and publishing on a forum for new and unpublished authors by the editor of a writing contest. He said that when evaluating a book on writing, first look at the author, and don’t just buy anything published by say Writer’s Digest. The work should be by a bestselling or admired author (as with Stephen King‘s On Writing) or a top literary agent (for instance, Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages) or the author should have other experiences as a gatekeeper, such as the case with Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, who worked as acquisition editors. I own all four of the books mentioned above, have given them as gifts to writer friends, and I consider each invaluable for anyone interested in publishing professionally or even just hobby writers wanting to improve their craft. Those works are the yardstick by which I measure books on fiction writing. Do I think this book has its place alongside those works? Lowenkopf certainly qualifies as one of those who, given his experience as a an editor, would know what the gatekeepers look for in a submitted work. I will put his book alongside the others on my shelf for now; it has some useful information, but I wouldn’t count it among the better books on fiction writing I’ve read.” –Lisa (Harmonybites)

“This book is laid out like a dictionary, with everything and anything to do with writing listed from A to Z (‘act’ is the first one and ‘zeitgeist’ is the last one).

There are explanations for things that are well-known like ‘attitude’, ‘pace’, ‘subplot’ and ‘writer’s block’. But there are also some terms that I’d never heard of before like ‘bildungsroman’, ‘the choking Doberman’, ‘fish in a barrel’ and ‘verisimilitude’.

If there is a word in small caps in an explanation, it means it has its own explanation in the book.

For me it isn’t a book I could read from front to back … it’s one that I would pick up and read a couple explanations and then put down until another time. I found it more interesting to randomly open the book and read whatever explanation I had come across.” -Teena, Toronto

“This book is more like a dictionary explaining all the concepts of fiction writing. I assumed this book would be a how-to book, but it was better than that! This handbook will be one that new fiction writers will turn to again and again. At the beginning of the book you can find a list of all words and phrases discussed in the book. Most entries in this handbook offer tips, techniques and hint for a fiction writer. While this book will be a great resource for new fiction writers and editors, it will also be a valuable resource that will be turned to again and again for even the most seasoned writer or editor”. -Lisa

“It’s been a few years since I’ve written anything fictional but when I do (if I ever get around to a plot outline) I’m sure I’ll be going back to this a book a few times.

It doesn’t hurt that the foreword is written by my favorite author Christopher Moore (nice selling point for me).” -Eric Peterson

“This is an astute book, one for all aspiring writers and bibliophiles; not a book you read in one sitting, nor is it a book you ever finish totally. It is a book you delve into, a book you explore time and time again. A must for beginners and a must for those who wish to improve their craft.” -Lili

“Really just skimmed this dictionary-like anthology of literary terms. I found it a useful reference, though a bit more of an introduction or ‘look for these terms’ guide might have been appreciative.” -Mary

“Although I have gone through this once already I think this is going to be a book for me to keep going back to as I dive into writing. It has great information for a new writer. I don’t think this is a book I will ever truly finish. I will need to keep going back to it again and again.” -Julie Reyes

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