The Architecture of the Lie That Tells a Truth

★ Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (Hardcover) by John Dufresne, reviewed by C. J. Singh on, copy posted January 22, 2010 (55 of 58 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
In the main, John Dufresne’s new book, aptly subtitled “A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months,” comprises novel-focused insights of his earlier book, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction (2005). That book was highly praised for Dufresne’s amiable voice and wit. The new book sustains both very well and is complete in itself –without a prerequisite reading of his previous craft book. Dufresne, a professor in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at Florida International University, is the author of several acclaimed literary novels and includes brief examples from these published works. The book sequences the twenty chapters by weeks in the suggested twenty-six week writing schedule.
book cover
The opening four chapters cover the first four weeks, assigned to finding the subject and the principal characters of your story. Here’s an example of his lucid expository writing: “I usually begin my novels with a character, someone who intrigues me for some reason or other…. I find a person, and then I give that person some trouble, and then I ask that person what she wants to do about the trouble, and then put more obstacles in her way — writing a novel is taking the path of most resistance” (pp 71-72).
The fifth chapter introduces plotting. Dufresne cites the widely used screen-writing plot diagram: “We might borrow a technique from screenwriting and establish four important scenic moments and use them as a scaffold for building our plot: the opening scene; the plot point at the end of Act I; the plot point at the end of Act II; and the end of the novel” (p 111). Plot point is explained as “a twist that sends the novel off in a new direction.” (The screen-writing plot diagram was first adapted from Aristotle’s Poetics by Syd Field in his pioneering books, Screenplay, published in 1978, and The Screenwriter’s Workbook ).
To generate plot, Dufresne devises a three-column “Plottomatic” schema to prompt what-if scenarios. “Plottomatic” is introduced in a witty manner as copyrighted material by “The Famous Novelists School, Inc” at a P.O. Box in Dania Beach, Florida, his hometown. Maybe his own P.O. Box? — to see how many send for the touted “Famous Novelists Aptitude Test,” purporting to discover if they have “what it takes to become a famous, respected, and handsomely remunerated novelist” (p 96).
The next six chapters guide the reader on setting, theme, point of view, and further development of plot. In the appendix, Dufresne lists “the books I was reading while I was writing.” For structuring the plot, he reproduces the inclined plot diagram from Robert J Ray’s The Weekend Novelist, with markers for the opening scene, plot point one, plot point two, and climactic scene. Dufresne concludes the twelfth chapter: “Write a one-sentence, one paragraph synopsis of your novel as you now envision it. Cannot be more than a hundred words. This is what it’s all about” (p 201). In chapter thirteen, at the half-way stage in the 26-week schedule, he suggests writing the opening scene. (A bit of arithmetic to compare Dufresne’s guide with Ray’s: Dufresne schedules a three-hour daily writing session for 26 weeks; Ray schedules two three-hour writing sessions each weekend for 52 weeks — the equivalent of a three-hour daily session for 15 weeks. Ray has recently published a follow-up book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel — see my review on Amazon.)
I hope there’ll soon be Dufresne’s “Guide on Rewriting Your Novel”–especially if he includes detailed examples from his own successive drafts. Such a book would be valuable to MFA literary novel-writing students as most of the other contemporary novel-writing guides are by genre novelists.

Dufresne’s guide — replete with sidebar quotes from the likes of Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, and Milan Kundera — inspires and lucidly presents a step-by-step architectural plan to create the first draft.

[Sample side-bar quotes:

Mark Twain: “Don’t tell us the old lady screamed. Bring her on stage and let her scream.”

Vladimir Nabokov: “You have to saturate yourself with English poetry in order to compose English prose.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “I write my big scenes first, that is, the scenes that carry the meaning of the book, the emotional experience.”

Eudora Welty: “Writing a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon a cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.”

Milan Kundera: “All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self.”]

Five-star book.



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