HIGH-IMPACT TOOLS for WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION

★ Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling (Paperback) by Donald Maass, reviewed by C. J. Singh  on  amazon.com, copy posted October 21, 2012 (17 of 19 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

In the opening chapter, Donald Maass introduces his book’s basic premise: In the 21st century “high-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fictions,” transcending the dichotomy (pages 2-3). Maass equates “high-impact” with a novel’s inclusion on the New York Times bestseller list: the longer it stays on the list, the higher its impact.

The second chapter’s title “The Death of Genre” proclaims assimilation of commercial or genre fiction into literary fiction: “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (page 13). As examples, he cites Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate — a literary and thriller; and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union–a literary and murder mystery.

However, the dichotomy flourishes in MFA programs in American universities. “Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven….Many, perhaps most, teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre.” That’s a quote from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition), the most widely used textbook in fiction-writing courses. (See my review on amazon.) This dichotomy first arose from early twentieth century modernist and mid-century postmodernist literary movements. Recently, the excesses of postmodernism have led to a reaction for which literary theorists have not yet found a label and are calling it post-postmodernist literary works. (See my note at the end of this review for a brief exposition of these movements.)

Maass’s subsequent chapters present tools for writing high-impact fiction. Some of these tools are similar to those in his earlier books such as The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques. (See my review on Amazon.) Can this book be comprehended without reading his earlier books on craft? Yes.

The third chapter, “The Inner Journey,” presents excerpts from several novels such as Joshilyn Jackson’s Gods in Alabama published in 2005, and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, published in 2009. Can these excerpts be understood without having read the novels? Yes. Maass skillfully presents synopses of each novel excerpted.

The fourth chapter, “The Outer Journey,” focuses on plot, citing excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, published in 2005, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, published in 2009.

The fifth chapter, “Standout Characters” cites examples from Markus Zasuk’s The Book Thief, published in 2005 and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, published in 2009. Also Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, cited in the previous chapter, underscoring high-impact novel’s requirement of both plot- and character-driven writing.

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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 amazon.com, copy posted January 22, 2010 (55 of 58 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
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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.
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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 ).

The Second Edition: An Excellent Narrative-Craft Book

 ★The Weekend Novelist (Paperback) by Robert J. Ray, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted on May 3, 2007 (13 of 14 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
After reading the Amazon reviews of this book, I decided to purchase both editions to find out why several reviews extol the first edition over the second.
The Weekend Novelist
In TWN’s first edition, Robert J Ray lucidly analyzes the fiction craft in one novel, Anne Tyler’s THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, a great favorite of mine (“Anne Tyler is not merely good; she is wickedly good,” wrote John Updike). The preface to the second edition notes: “The first edition of this book started with character and moved on to plot and scene and writing. The second edition expands the plotting section. From a dozen or so pages in the old edition, we have enlarged this focus to give you a range of choices for building your book. The basic concept you need to build a plot is architecture” (ix).

Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story”: A Closer Look

 : The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (Hardcover) by John Truby, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted November 13, 2007 (319 of 348 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
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To date, several reviews have praised this book uncritically. This review takes a closer look. Truby presents excellent analyses/anatomies of numerous films and literary works. The book also includes some repackaged story-writing techniques. Several other earlier books, examples listed below, have explained these techniques succinctly.
On page 5, Truby writes: “My goal is to explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one…. I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.” Promising. He goes on to present very engaging analyses of films and literary works: films like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Hannah and her Sisters,” and “Lord of the Rings”; literary works like Jane Austen’s “Emma,” Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Emily Bronte’s “The Wuthering Heights,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”However, several of the techniques Truby presents — such as starting with a one-sentence premise, developing the story line from the premise, creating contrasting characters, weaving in the inside emotional story — are also the techniques in Lajos Egri’s clasic, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING; Syd Field’s pioneering book, SCREENPLAY, James N. Frey’s witty books, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL I & II; Linda Seger’s MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT; and Robert J Ray’s THE WEEKEND NOVELIST.
On the opening page, Truby says: “Terms like ‘rising action,’ ‘climax,’ ‘progressive complication,’ and ‘denouement,’ terms that go as far back as Aristotle, are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless.” And on the next page, “The three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic.” (On page 287, Truby trashes the three-act structure as “lousy plot with no chance of competing in the real world of professional screenwriting.”)
In the above quotes, the phrases “almost meaningless,” “nothing to do with its internal logic,” “lousy plot” sound strident. During drafting, structural guidelines do contribute — contribute interactively — form to content, content to form. Moreover, the classical three-act structure is invariably the audience’s psychological experience of conflict in any dramatic story: beginning, middle, end — even when the plot-design presents the conflict in a different order. Truby, I think, meant to say that citing the three-act structure is not one of the 22 steps touted in his book’s subtitle. Granted, simply citing the three-act structure wouldn’t be helpful. That would be like the king’s unhelpful advice to the white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s wondrous tale: “Begin at the beginning,” the king said, gravely, “go on to the end; then stop.” None of the craft books listed above just cite the three-act form and then say as Truby imputes: “Got that? Great. Now go and write a professional script”(p 4). The books listed above discuss premise, theme, character, characterization, goal, conflict and so on. Truby slipped into the straw-man fallacy here.

From the questions I asked the author at his reading this afternoon at Mrs. Dalloway’s, a Berkeley bookstore, I learned that he also markets a writing software, Truby Blockbuster, upgraded to match this book. (In his presentation, none of the above stridency — elegantly persuasive presenter.) At home, I looked up the amazon software-reviews of Truby Blockbuster. The software is expensive: three-hundred bucks upfront plus hundreds more for add-ons. One reviewer of Truby’s software, Razzi “the working screenwriter,” writes : “You have to take Truby’s ideas with the knowledge that Truby himself was never able to successfully apply them. His sole pro credit is as a tv writer on a series made over a decade ago. But that doesn’t stop Truby from pontificating on all the ‘mistakes’ made by writers far more successful than himself.” Well, well, Mr. Razzi: A craft teacher can be effective without being a high performer in the art. I feel that in fairness to Mr. Truby, we must not forget that Aristotle, the pioneering guru of the drama-writing craft in Western literature, did not write any drama.

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“The Art and Craft of Novel Writing”: Excellent for Learning the Craft of Writing a Literary Novel

★ The Art and Craft of Novel Writing (Paperback) by Oakley Hall, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted December 28, 2010 (7 of 7 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
For two decades, Oakley Hall directed the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, teaching the craft of writing fiction to numerous apprentice writers, including Richard Ford, Amy Tan, and Michael Chabon.
In The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, published in 1989, Hall sequences the chapters of the first two parts as the syllabus for a basic course in fiction writing. The first part comprises four chapters: dramatization; characterization, point of view, and plotting. The second part also comprises four chapters: style; dialog; indirection; and information. He includes quotes from the writings of literary masters like Gustav Flaubert; Anton Chekov, Henry James; William Faulkner; Ernst Hemingway; and Flannery O’Connor. These well-chosen quotes enhance his exposition of the craft elements to high sophistication.

MFA in Paperback! – “Deepening Fiction”

★ Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers (Paperback) by Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren, reviewed by  C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted July 23, 2006 (32 of 32 people found the review helpful.) –  See all  reviews
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Deepening Fiction assumes the reader has already studied an introductory text on the fiction-writing craft such as Mark Baechtel’s Shaping the Story or Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. (I recently posted my reviews of the Bachtael and the Burroway books on Amazon.)
Although Deepening Fiction is designed primarily as a textbook for advanced courses, I found it entirely accessible for self-teaching. It could very well serve as the focus book of a study group as it poses intelligently worded discussion questions on each of the twenty-two stories in its anthology section. Among these stories, sixteen are by contemporary writers.
In the preface, the authors observe: “More experienced writers are ready to understand just how much writing is revision, how much we develop the shape and meaning of the story over multiple drafts. Our goal is to help writers connect craft to the particular work they are wrestling with. … The long middle stretch of the writing apprenticeship–between initial learning of the basic concepts and the production of meaningful, memorable works free of inconsistencies and clichés–can be a hard one. … It’s one thing to learn the difference between scene and summary and quite another to figure out what parts of a particular story to render as scene, what as summary, and how these choices influence the story’s meaning.”
Scene, summary, flashbacks, backstory, and transitions are the topics constituting chapter 5, which presents illuminating story analyses of Lan Samantha Chang’s The Eve of the Spirit Festival and Yasunari Kawabata’s The Rooster and the Dancing Girl.
Chapter 1 reviews issues in complexifying characters, with illustrations from Tobias Wolff’s Powder and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Chapters 2 and 3 take on complexifying point of view beyond first, second, third, with story analyses of Margot Livesey’s The Niece, Jorge Luis Borges’s Inferno, I, 32, and Anton Chekov’s Gooseberries. As an example of stories that require first-person narrators, Alice Munro’s The Turkey Season is analyzed. Orientation, by Daniel Orozco, a frequently anthologized story to exemplify second-person point of view (as done in Burroway’s textbook) is persuasively analyzed instead as a monologue. Second-person narration is illustrated by Adam Johnson’s Trauma Plate. The authors note that this is the only short story “we know of, in fact, uses first, second, and third person.” Johnson contributes several substantial paragraphs explaining his point-of-view choices in revising successive drafts of the story.

The Classic College Textbook on the Fiction-Writing Craft (The Current Edition)

★ Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition) (Paperback) by Janet Burroway, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted January 14, 2012 (43 of 44 people found the review helpful.)–  See all my reviews 

 

In the current edition, more than half of the 22 stories are new, including works by contemporaries like Stuart Dybek, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Ron Hansen, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz. A welcome return are short-shorts, one of the highlights of the sixth edition that were dropped in the seventh. Also, the new edition features a more detailed discussion of the revision process: it presents the early and final drafts of a short story, “Keith, by Ron Carlson, an established writer and professor of creative writing at UC Irvine.In the preface to the eighth edition, Burroway notes that “the idea of a text for writing fiction is itself problematic. Unlike such subjects as math and history, where a certain mass of information needs to be organized and conveyed, the writing of fiction is more often a process of trial and error–the learning is perpetual and, paradoxically, the writer needs to know everything at once. If a text is too prescriptive, it’s not true to the immense variety of possibilities; if it’s too anecdotal, it may be cheering but is unlikely to be of use.” Excellent criterion, emerging from the author’s decades of writing and teaching experience. This edition, like the seventh and sixth, engages and isn’t too prescriptive. Continue reading

An Excellent Primer for Developing a Story

★ : Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Paperback) by Lisa Cron, reviewed by  C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted January 1, 2014 (2 of 2 people found the review helpful) – See all my reviews
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Wired for Story presents the fundamental elements for developing a story, mirroring the topics in many other books catering to the creative-writing industry. However, this book does have a unique, distinguishing feature: Throughout its text, the author includes excerpts from the published works of leading contemporary brain-scientists that validate the principles of narrative craft. The principles of narrative craft are explained in eleven well-organized chapters that focus on theme, the protagonist’s issue, characters’ bios, points of view, rising conflicts, subplots, suspense, reveals, and the arc from setup to payoff. At the beginning of each chapter, Lisa Cron presents sentences in italics that illuminate the cognitive-science underpinnings of narrative craft. Examples follow.

Excellent Teach-Yourself Book on Creative-Writing Basics – “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” (3rd Ed.)

★ Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft (Penguin Academics Series) (3rd Edition) (Paperback) by Janet Burroway, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted October 5, 2013 – See all my reviews

 

(The following is an addendum to my review of the previous edition that was posted on 8 April 2007.)

Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, 3rd Edition adds several new short stories, nonfictions, poems, dramas and drops some of the ones in the second edition, keeping the overall page count of the book about the same. Notably enhanced are the chapters on drama and on poetry. The drama section includes several examples of a newly popular genre, the ten-minute play.

Although marketed as a textbook for Creative Writing 101, this book can serve as an excellent primer for self-teaching. On completing the brief “try this” exercises included, you’ll acquire a good understanding of the craft elements and be able to judge whether the comments on your work by other apprentice writers in a workshop or your friends are on the mark or not. Beware that even positive, flattering comments (“I loved this image…”) can mislead you.

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