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Robert Pfaff, Shrunken Heads, Book Reports


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Robert Pfaff, Shrunken Heads, Book Reports

 

Book Reports:

 

The Art of Fiction (Gardener)

1. I have loved John Gardener since I read Grendel in high school. He validated my instincts. For example, I like to break the rules but have always believed that you have to master the rules before you can break them well. Learning a musical instrument or a foreign language teaches you the same idea. You must understand and appreciate structure before you can manipulate it.

 

11. 1) He debunks certain myths like “Write what you know.” It’s a good departure point for a first book, and my first book is a memoir. But I prefer to write about topics that inspire me to learn new topics, even when it requires years of research to acquire a credible grasp of the subject matter.

 

2) He embraced the idea of crossing genres, and blending thematic element, which has been on my mind a lot (and often the subject of online debate). I struggle with the concept of genre. My marketing research tells me that genre exists from the summit, as boxes. There are clearly westerns, romance, murder mysteries, etc.…. From a lower altitude, the idea of genre starts to blur. For example, one of my comparables was Karen Robard’s “The Last Victim,” pitched as a ‘romance supernatural suspense thriller.”

 

At the granular lever – the decision-maker’s level, the idea of genre appears to depend on buzz words that appeal to an individual agent or editor. To use one example, I discovered that an Author’s Salon representative with a major publishing house who asked for my manuscript at the conference also purchased the rights to a “supernatural suspense” novel in 2013. I would not have unearthed that information by searching under the genre “horror” on Publisher’s Marketplace. I had to experiment and analyze multiple, related keywords.

 

3) The concept of the novel as the fictional dream became important to me: shorter, action-based scenes that use vivid imagery and senses to tell the story and induce empathy in the reader, without tripping over false allegory. I make use of one brief allegory in the novel, because psychoanalysts are prone to “deconstruct” simple nursery rhymes or myths to an erotic extreme. This hyperbole fits squarely within the character’s mentality.

 

III. I read the book when I first started this program more than six months ago, and reviewed my notes before I answered these questions. I do not recall anything that directly contradicts what is taught in this course. His approach is less prescriptive – he does not adhere to a particular kind of plot structure, but the “nuts and bolts” six-act, two-goal plot structure taught in the Authors Salon is what I needed to learn at this time.

 

Writing the Breakout Novel (Maas)

 

I. Overall, his insights into how the publishing industry works and what agents and editors are looking for is the overall best lesson gleaned from this book.

 

II. 1) He validated both how I defined the protagonist and the antagonists. The protagonist is the person who has the most to learn from the events that transpire. The primary antagonist is not a one-dimensional serial killer, but a complex, oddly sympathetic monster who believes “it” liberates souls from bad brains. The “red herring” antagonist is a complex, sympathetic young woman at first, troubled by delusions about replicas and robots.

 

2) He inspired me to move the backstory into the novel as a murder mystery subplot. In the first two drafts, five of Leonard’s former patients and lovers were “missing,” but never participated in the plot. Now they have left the wings and play important roles in driving a subplot that I believe makes for a tightly coiled plot. To save his daughter’s soul from the vengeful spirits, he must risk everything tracking down a serial killer that both 1) has wielded the vengeful spirits embodied in Marta determined to possess his daughter but also 2) holds the mystical secret to her salvation.

 

3)) His emphasis on bringing the reader deeply as possible into the character’s experience, whatever the point of view, and his emphasis on credible setting within a given historical and cultural setting. In this respect, I have studied down to the historical weather reports – and through subscriptions to The Boston Globe archives – to provide a surreal narrative and its supernatural elements with historically accurate underpinnings.

 

III) Again, I read this book six months ago when I first started this course, and I do not recall direct contradictions. Perhaps the only exception that qualifies is that he validated my initial, first-person “flash-back” approach to writing this novel from a point in the future, as a series of first-person letters from father to daughter. I see where that is discouraged as less marketable in the Author’s Salon modules, but not prohibited.

 

Write Away (George)

I. The best image that comes to mind is how the best novelist allow the story to blossom like a flower bud throughout the narrative, planting clues without tipping your hand.

 

II. 1) She embraces the “issue-based” approach to novel writing – suggesting that you write about your passions, both political and philosophical. She does discourage storylines that have a thematic agenda. What asks you to write about what “riles you up?”

 

2) The chapter (11) on “Tricks of the Dialogue Trade” was exactly what I needed to help distinguish one character’s voice from another, with examples provided above.

 

3) The emphasis on Unity in all aspects of the novel beyond theme stood out to me. As a result, I have striven to ensure that all scenes in the first 100 pages adhere to a unified cause-and-effect, and conversations between characters echo the unity as well.

 

4) I will also add the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s archetype. The ordinary and often flaw protagonist steps over a threshold that takes him on a journey to his inner depths (the approach to the inmost cave) facing many “ordeals,” with “enemies and allies,” until he reaches an epiphany, which leads to his “resurrection,” and then returns with a “reward.”

 

III. It seems that the reading assignments complement the course modules, so I do not see major contradictions. She does promote a standard “three-act” structure, but acknowledges variations exist and that there are no “hard and fast rules.”

 

The Writing Life (Dillard)

 

I. The ultimate trade off that a committed writer must make between creative autonomy and that likelihood that no will care and your sacrifices will not matter struck me hard at this crossroads in my life.

 

II 1) The questions that every write must ask: Can it be done? And can I do it? Resonate with the hurdles I faced when I first waded into this book three years ago.

 

2) She places an emphasis ion trusting your instincts, suggesting that if your gut signals you to keep something in the book rather than hold back gave me the confidence to trust y instincts when my inner critic told me, do you really need to that paragraph. I allowed me to say I may not need it, but I like it, and I think it will appeal to the reader.

 

3) The trade-off between a propensity for the metaphysical and the “commercial claptrap” to borrow her phrase, represents an endless challenge for me. She suggests that when drawn to the metaphysical, its best to provide the plot with the most realistic underpinnings possible. This led me to explore topics that not only gave me the realistic underpinnings I needed, but taught me that the horrors of the real world are far more perverse and sinister that I summoned from the musty basement of my imagination in the first two drafts.

 

III. Yes, her approach is less structured and systematic that what is taught in the modules. However, she is describing the challenges that writer’s face, and not writing much of a how-to manual.

Robert Pfaff

455 Wallace Drive

Charleston, SC 29412

843-300-5474

robert@robertpfaff.net

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