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BOOK REPORTS

 

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

 

1. How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

Yes. It reinforced for me some vital components that must permeate the book throughout. For example, the story development must continuously cast forwards, drawing the reader from paragraph to paragraph, from scene to scene. Any let up and the reader can stop caring where the story will go next, at which point the writer has failed, and the reader stops reading. This was particularly important for me to get in my head in the early scenes when I move from place to place, character to character. I had initially focused on backward looking exposition, but realized that this must take a back seat to forward looking hooks, otherwise the reader will cease to want to know where the book is going.

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

  • I fixed on the idea that I must induce the reader into a dream and never let him go. As part of my editing, I now keep in mind that anything that disturbs or disrupts the dream threatens the continued interest of the reader.
  • While I had tried to avoid extraneous detail and the removal of adverbs that were there because of a lazy selection of verbs, I now make special note to create vivid detail when I need credibility. As Gardner says, this is the lifeblood of fiction. But I find at times it can be overused by some writers to substitute for depth of character and motivation.
  • I particularly took on board the idea that perfect writing means hitting what you are aiming at and not touching anything you do not aim at. I think, while I am starting out, it is hard to know what to aim for and easier to just let the ideas flow. I am increasingly sitting back and thinking to myself, what am I trying to do here? What am I aiming at?

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?

 

I think it is fair to say that I was spending too much time thinking about plot mechanics rather than my protagonist being the agent for their own decisions. In my first drafts, my characters were often a victim of the plot, and they only really came alive, with the proper motivations when I thought about their desires, fears and misbeliefs, and made them make the decisions based in most cases on those aspects of their character.

 

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

 

1. How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

I think this book gave me the most confidence to be original. I really took to heart some fundamental ideas of plausibility, originality, and gut emotional appeal, to add to the ideas around conflict that I was learning in the course. I want to be an original writer and feel that the pressure to align yourself with other writers is cast out there as something that will make you commercial. I was going down that route, but I think the more I threw myself into the craft, originality has taken over and I feel I found in this book the mechanics of how to make that work.

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

 

I think of the different books, this was one where I could put down way more than three lessons. But I note just three here:

  • Characters must be unforgettable – The analysis of character made me realize the fundamentals of a strong character; making them realistic but larger than life; saying and doing things that we would not dare to do in our normal life; feeling things authentically without turning away.
  • Changing the way the reader sees the world – This is very much the theme of my story. The further I progress in the story, the more I intend it to rattle, confront, and illuminate.
  • Building high human worth – I had originally put in too much death at the beginning thinking it would add suspense and realism, but all it did was reduce the worth of the characters. Instead I have been building the worth of the protagonist, initially to those around her, but as her connection to the Antagonist is revealed, her worth to everyone involved will grow to a climax.

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?

 

Not sure if this conflicted but it struck me as a fundamental that was not identified. It was the idea of using only characters you like. Possible I missed it somewhere in the coursework. It made me cut out a number of characters and the story is the better for it.

 

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

 

1. How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

I don’t feel this book helped me very much. I have my own way of writing, my own habits that work for me. I did pick up a few sage words of advice, three of what I noted below.

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

  • It is the beginning of the work that the writer throws away. Often the best parts of the writing are discarded. I agreed with this. As I went through the course, I threw away practically all of my original work, in some cases multiple times, dispatching characters, sub-plots that at an early stage were central to the story.
  • She notes that the writer should not write for the movie. Write for the person who wants to read a book, not for the person who would prefer to see it in a movie.
  • She reiterates well the idea of hitting what you aim for but goes an insightful step further by noting the writer should aim for the chopping block, not the wood.

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?

 

I think there was the least amount of overlap with the course, so relatively few areas which you could think there may be conflicts. I think for me, I gleaned some useful thoughts on the craft that added to what I was learning from the course and from other sources.

 

Write Away by Elizabeth George

 

1. How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

The book gave me a large number of smart insights into the craft I was already learning from the course work. It made me think harder about each step of the craft, what was most important to keep the reader’s attention. In particular the three related points below, made me revisit my mindset to the use of my characters in driving suspense.

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

  • While I was trying to get my characters to drive the plot rather than the other way around, it was particularly striking to hear Elizabeth note that these characters must be real people to the reader at the same time and the reality of their lives affect an event. This made me think more clearly about what I was trying to achieve with the agency of the main characters, that their actions and decisions should not just drive their own plot, but those of the other characters.
  • On a related point, she noted that an event alone cannot hold a story together. Only characters effecting an event or event affecting characters can do that. If you create characters that are real to the reader, who evoke an emotional response within the reader, you create suspense because the reader will what to know that’s going to happen next once the status quo is shattered by the primary event.
  • You must continually open up your story; creating scenes in which you lay down but not answer dramatic questions. If you do answer a dramatic question, you must have already laid down another. You do this by making partial disclosures instead of giving out all the information you possess. You create tension by making a promise to the reader at the beginning of the novel. When a story stalls out, the writer has played their hand too soon. Information should be played out with great care. If the writer gives something away too soon, the entire house of cards collapses.

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?

 

I am again not sure if there was anything that directly conflicted with the course, but Elizabeth notes that characters are interesting in their misery, their unhappiness, their confusion, their conflict and she says you cannot bring a character to life in a book if they are not alive before you start writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about this and Stephen Kings book about how he starts with a situation and then puts a barely drawn character into that situation, and challenges them to find a way out of it. Out of this, I decided that at the heart of each main character should be motivation driven essentially by fear or desire, and decisions often driven by misunderstanding or misbelief. For my story, the protagonist needed start with misery and unhappiness but not be a victim. To be a positive agent of her own destiny she needed a backbone and a reason to put her fear aside and move forward based on some inner desire. In the hook, around the inciting incident, and for the first plot point, her misunderstanding about the world and what is going on motivates her to make decisions where she mentally is able to put her desire over her fear. Ultimately, though these decisions are made for the wrong reasons and with the wrong objectives. So while she may be confused, to an extent unhappy, her motivation comes from her positive desires, her hope, her inner strength, and not from being a victim. I don’t think I got this from the course and Elizabeth’s book did not give me this precisely, but I evolve this outlook in my mind because of both.

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