Eventually, reading books about how to write is just another way to put off writing. I've said before that I think I've exhausted what I can gain from such books, not because I'm now the best writer I can be (I'm not, or at least I hope I'm not) but because you have to learn by doing, not by reading about it.
That said, I begin to distinguish between writing advice books aimed at "beginning," "intermediate," and "advanced" writers. Though the latter is hypothetical - an "advanced" writer would presumably be someone already published or very close to it, and I have yet to find a book that I think might actually have something new to say to someone at that level. Advanced writers improve their writing by reading other great writers.
So where am I? I don't know - obviously I am not published yet, unless you count some fairly well-regarded RPG supplements. I like to think I am at least "intermediate." So Nancy Kress's Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint
is, I would say, an intermediate-level book. I picked it up because some critiques of my latest WIP were that the characters were not engaging enough.
As far as talking about how to make characters compelling and emotions more interesting and real, there was little in Kress's book that I didn't already "know." But there are a lot of useful discussions that would be good refreshers for any aspiring author to keep in mind.
Kress does delve into some very technical aspects of certain types of writing, which was useful, and she breaks down a few concepts into useful categories, which was also informative. For example, there is a chapter on humorous characters, and how hard it is to pull off humor in writing, the techniques that work, and the ones that don't. There are chapters on character description, motivations, emotion (several chapters on emotions), all written at a sophisticated level for the writer who already knows the basics and presumably is past making the most obvious blunders. (Kress still takes some time to warn against those: the "looking in the mirror" cheat to describe your character, the police blotter-style physical description, whipsaw emotional responses, etc.)
I was particularly interested in these four categories of protagonists:
• Characters who never change, neither in personality nor motivation. They are what they are, and they want what they want.
• Characters whose basic personality remains the same; they don't grow or change during the story. But what they want changes as the story progresses (“progressive motivation”).
• Characters who change throughout the story, although their motivation does not.
• Characters who change throughout the story and their motivation progresses.
I had always kind of assumed: "Well, of course a well-written protagonist changes — you want character growth
!" And usually I will not like a book where the main character shows no growth, no change, no evidence that the story has really affected him or her. But there are static protagonists who work just fine: for example, James Bond. (Admittedly, not a particularly literary character.) And separating motivation and character is also useful.
Probably the most useful chapter, though, was the one on POV. Of course I already knew the difference between omniscient, close third person, multiple third person, and first and second person, and why head-hopping is bad, but Kress even breaks them down into even finer categories than that, and gives a pretty good discussion of the advantages and pitfalls of each.
Also, notably, while giving the "rules" for good writing, Kress cites plenty of examples of books that break the rules, and notes that yes, it's true, "badly written" books still get published and are best-sellers, and it's worth looking at what qualities those books possess that overcome their technical deficiencies.
So, I don't know that I got enough out of this book to improve my writing directly, but there were useful points to consider, and if you just like reading books about writing, this was a fairly dry but quite intelligent one.
I haven't read any of Nancy Kress's fiction, but will have to pick up something, as I always like to read some fiction by writers who write writing advice books.