Title: Beginnings, Middles and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing Series)
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

I first learned about Beginnings, Middles and Ends from from the same place where I get a lot of my writing advice: Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Considering the subject matter and the useful way this book structures its advice, I’m surprised it’s not recommended more by other writers. It fits nicely with the other books about the craft of writing that I’ve read this year – On Writing and Bird by Bird – although I’m sure more will be added to the pile as 2012 progresses.

Overview: Author Nancy Kress identifies three types of writers and their respective weaknesses: Those who have trouble writing beginnings, those who have trouble writing middles, and those who have trouble writing endings. The book is broken up into three  sections and analyzes the types of problems each writer faces during the process of crafting a story.

What I liked: I recognized myself throughout the book. In each section, when Kress described a problem that writers encounter in the process of working on a story, I thought “that’s me!” to myself over and over again .For each problem she provides a hypothetical plot that exemplifies it and suggests several solutions. She never categorically states that a solution “must” or “will” work – just that it has proven useful to others. In addition, she provides examples of existing published stories that have already overcome the same structural problems. On top of this, the book extensively discusses the different problems that short stories face in comparison to novels, and vice versa. I found her acknowledgement of the structural problems inherent to each format to be reassuring.

What I disliked: Almost nothing. I originally gave this book 4 stars out of 5, but I bumped it up to 5 when I realized that I couldn’t name any major problems with it. If anything, it’s overwhelming in its bounty of good writing advice. There’s only one thing I’d change about the book, and that’s a small passage at the end that contains an interview with the author. In the interview, Kress states that the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was from Gene Wolfe, who told her to “have two different things go on a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” Since the book doesn’t go much into the intricacies of subplots, I think it would have been helpful to include this tidbit in the body of the book rather than in an extra at the end, but this is a small quibble at best.

The verdict: If you have the chance to buy Beginnings, Middles and Ends, take advantage of it. The book contains lots of solid, useful advice, dispensed in a clear, engaging manner; Nancy Kress is full of empathy for her readers, and it shows. The structure of the book is natural and intuitive, and the recommendations within it are exhaustive. This book is a keeper – I can certainly see myself referring to it as I progress with my own narrative writing.

Next up: On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini