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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