The Best Self-Teaching Book for Creative-Writing Basics

★:  Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft (4th Edition) (Penguin Academics Series) (Paperback) by Janet Burroway, reviewed by  C. J. Singh  – See all my reviews

As expected, the fourth edition adds new short stories, nonfictions, poems, dramas and drops some of the ones in the third edition, keeping the overall page count of the book about the same. The new stories added are by Tobias Wolff, Jamaica Kincaid, Ursula Le Guin and others; new examples of creative nonfiction are from Michael Chabon, David Sedaris, and others. Also new are nearly half of the poems and dramas.

Some of the “new” additions are from the most widely anthologized, for example, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” That’s good for beginners: if you haven’t read them before, they are great additions; good for instructors: if you have read them before, they cut down your preparation time.

The expository sections of Poetry and Drama are expanded. Particularly helpful for self-teaching will be the first and final drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” and Patty Seyburn’s “Anatomy of Disorder.”

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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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