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Fiction Is Folks by Robert Newton Peck (1983)

Book review: Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters by Robert Newton Peck (Writer’s Digest Books, 1987 [1983])

Robert Newton Peck does not believe in writing stories or novels. He lets his characters write them, and in Fiction Is Folks, you’ll learn the tricks of his well-polished trade:

  • how to use yourself as a character and when not to
  • how to write about people the way they actually are – instead of how they ought to be
  • what homework you need to do on each of your characters – and how to use the results
  • “narrative drag” – what it is and how to cure it
  • where to find buzz words and how to use them to your best advantage
  • how to turn what bugs you into a salable idea
  • why you should invite trouble into your story

Peck employs the talents of such characters as Mr. Fido Fastbuck, Mona Miniver, Mrs. Surly, Bathless Bart, and T.J. Bigdesk, all of whom play their roles to the hilt as you learn what characters are all about … and how the right characters make your story unforgettable to your editor and to your readers.

The thing about this book, is that it contains some very good advice … hidden in amongst an ungodly amount of bullcrap. If you’re expecting a book with a lot of good advice piled on top of each other, hold your horses. You’ll have to read through a pile of self-obsessed ramblings to get there.

The chapters follow the same sort of outline: a lot of waffle to set some kind of scene, shameless self-promotion, and a little nugget of something you could actually take to heart and use. The biggest problem with this book is not the contents, but the author. It won’t take you very long at all before you wished he’d put less of himself in the book, because you get an overbearing urge to punch him. (His jibe at introverts at the beginning at chapter 20 alone deserves a smack.)

There’s hardly a chapter that goes by without Peck (oddly appropriate name) mentioning his previous works. “This is how I did it in [Unheard-of Book]”, it’ll say, and there are times when he tells you outright you ought to go and buy his books, because they are so incredibly brilliant. Cawk. Sometimes he even refers to himself in the third person. Remember when Zaphod Beeblebrox said “If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now”? It’s not difficult to imagine Peck saying the exact same thing, and meaning every word.

To be honest, I prefer when he shuts the hell up about himself and let his characters do the talking, because they’re a heck of a lot more palatable than he is. I’ve no doubt that he’s a talented author of a bunch of books that kids no doubt love, because when he shuts up and lets his characters get to work, for a moment, you forget that he’s there in the background, like the creepy uncle who always wants you to sit in his lap.

At times, I was surprised by what seemed like pretty forward-thinking comments about female characters. Then there would be some other stinker about something else that lets the whole thing down. Ahhh!! If you’re looking for an infuriating book about writing, where you often want to yell “OH SCREW YOU!!” at it, look no further. This is the one.

And I haven’t even mentioned chapter 30, the final chapter, which is a list of things he’s learned in his life, which generally has little or no direct bearing on your writing. His political views (“25. The disease of socialism could have been cured, like ham, had only the unfortunate victim (the socialist) been raised on a farm.” – Is that a threat?), or views on pre-marital sex, or health care I don’t give a crap about. The whole chapter is just a big, fat “lookit me, I’m fabulous!” and should’ve been left on his typewriter and not made it into print. Go write a book about yourself, if you have to, don’t pollute a book on creative writing with it.

So, to summarise, yes, there are some useful bits about writing in here. There are also some things about writing you’re probably going to disagree with. It could have been an incredible book, full of great ideas, but it could have been summed up in 20-odd bullet points, without all the self-aggrandising twaddle in-between.

2 out of 5 cowboy hats.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

2 thoughts on “Fiction Is Folks by Robert Newton Peck (1983)

  1. I giggled through this entire review! I’m actually tempted now to get a copy of this book just so that I can read it and laugh at this apparently self-obsessed dude, hahaha. While reading this I was reminded of a friend’s university teacher. He used to refer to himself in third person in class. Lots of “according to so-and-so…” or “like so-and-so mentions in his book…” And this so-and-so person was actually him. And everyone new that. Hilarious!

    1. Charming teacher! I once saw a creative writing distance course at Malmö University, where you were required to spend about £45 on the coursebook (you could only buy it from one particular place, so no chance of finding it cheaper elsewhere) … written by the course tutor. Err, yeah. I didn’t end up registering on that course, funnily enough.

      You might be hard-pressed to find a copy of it, as it’s about 30 years old and out of print. Amazon UK has a few for around £10 and having read it, I wouldn’t pay that amount of money for it. I bought mine in a charity shop for, what, £2? THAT’S a fair price.

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