Beginnings Middles & Ends
by Nancy Kress
Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes

Author of many acclaimed science fiction books including Beggars in Spain, the recent release Dogs, and my favorite, Probability Space, Nancy Kress wrestled control of the curricula from Jeanne Cavelos for one entire week as Odyssey’s 2008 Writer in Residence.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends is one of her three books on the craft of writing. The others are Dynamic Characters and Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint.

No one is more qualified than Nancy to teach plot. Her fiction writing column has appeared for many years in Writer’s Digest magazine. As a one-time subscriber, I was delighted to find myself having breakfast across from my former print mentor. Nancy was very honest and fair in her feedback. She didn’t hesitate to give her opinion, but tried to guide the writer rather than force him in a particular direction. I was able to do a major rewrite to a flawed story thanks to Nancy’s observations. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the week was when Jeanne’s recommendations were diametrically opposed to Nancy’s.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends deals with plot. It is a thin book, packed tight with information, rather like a marathon runner’s body. In fact, my only complaint is that it is too thin. Nancy expects her students to work at learning, providing one apt example of most everything, and leaving it to the reader to find more.

That is the best way to learn, but sometimes I like to be spoon fed. I wish she had made a companion book entirely of examples--call it a case study.

Oddly enough, the book is divided into three sections. I found the “Beginnings” section the most useful. Just as most writers have trouble nailing down their middles, part two seems to meander from one topic to another. The gem here is a separate chapter called Under Development, Your Character at Midstory. This deals primarily with motivation, something both authors and characters struggle with.

If you’ve worked through Beginnings and Middles, then the Endings section serves as a capstone. It isn’t lengthy: because by staying on track through the first two sections there just aren’t that many ways to go wrong. Your conclusion will be “surprising but inevitable,” as all good endings must be.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends is not specifically for writers of sci-fi or fantasy. In fact, most of the examples come from mainstream books, probably a reflection of the diverse audience Nancy has conquered through Writer’s Digest. And, although sparse, the examples are priceless. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for help with plots.

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