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BOOK REPORTS ~ Connie Whitmer


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Book Reports Connie Whitmer

 

 

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL Donald Maass

 

I found Donald Maass’s book empowering, and invaluable as a writing craft reference, in general, and for my project in particular. “If I write an amazing story, well – they will come!” His advice improved every paragraph, page and chapter, knowing what to cut, and what to leave in. And affirmed the passion I feel for the importance of my story, and my need to tell it. And, most exciting, he reaffirmed exactly what I am trying to do. “To write a Break out Novel is to run free of the pack – To go beyond what has been done before - delve deeper, more original, unexplored realms of setting, character, dilemma, crisis, climax, theme, meaning, significance.”

 

Most successful Break Out Novels are cross genre. Both Maass and Gardner agree on this. TTRK is cross genre. I was having difficulty finding comparables. Now I am confident in my choices, if I do something original – and it’s good enough – they will come.

 

Deepening characters will affect plot. Deepening layers of plot will intensify your theme. Break out novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Authors do not stint on material if it deepens the impact of the story. Many break out novels are long, and sprawl. But you need conflict on every page - I love this. It’s all about conflicting deepest desires. !!!! This has actually made a big difference in my writing. My goal to make every chapter, page, paragraph, not about conflict – but about conflict based in conflicting deepest desires. (which are really my deepest desires . . . )

 

This is one of my favorites: My motivation exactly ~ Break out Novels are written from the author’s passionate need to make you understand, to expose you to someone special, or to take you somewhere you need to see. It confronts, rattles and illuminates! It is real. It is the truth! These novels change us, because the author is willing to draw upon their deepest selves without flinching. They hold nothing back, making their novels the deepest possible expression of their own experience and beliefs. There is purpose to their prose.

 

 

1. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

 

Maass’ template for writing a Premise is the best template and explanation I have seen for a Break out Premise.

 

Breakout novel Premise – 91 words, three sentences: Hero, flaw, complication, problem, the key, a flawed mentor, multiple barriers to worthy goal. To write a Premise you need: 1. Plausibility, 2. Inherent Conflict, 3. Originality, 4. Gut emotion. It’s the grain of truth that makes us care: strange, off center, unexpected, intriguing, provokes us, draws us in. What If?

 

 

~ Every Hero needs: Tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, visible dream, passionate longing, in escapable ambition, exquisite lust, tragic flaw, deep wound, fatal weakness, unavoidable obligation, iron instinct, irresistible plan, and noble ideal, undying hope. We care, because he does so deeply, fanatically, desperately.

 

~ Make days even more hellish! Crucible, crushing, choking, collapsing, denigrating, conflagrating, excoriating,

~ It’s all about escalation towards the edge! Chapter, sequence, act.

~ Have great first lines – first 10 words of paragraph/conflict drawing you in. It’s all about strength of Convictions – what you will always do no matter what. And what you will never do! VS. Do anything you have to, to get the outcome you want.

 

~ Do not get the wrong agent. Find someone who is excited, and passionate about your project. This is so important to me. TTRK is about righting a wrong, getting back at bullies, telling the Truth. Having the world fall in love with these real people . . . Gives you feed back before you send it to publisher!

 

~ I loved this book so much, I bought Maass’ Workbook as well, and recommend it highly. I have 10 pages of what I call Donald Maass Gems, a list of techniques I read at least once a week, so as to incorporate all into my writing.

 

 

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and

readings in our novel writing program. If so, what were they?

 

I found nothing that conflicted with the writing program. To the contrary, Maass confirms the methods, philosophy and enthusiasm for new writers, of your great program. I am extremely grateful for his book being a required read, as he answered all my most frustrating quandaries.

 

 

THE ART OF FICTION John Gardner

 

How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

The day I decided I would try and write the story of Bran Boru, the first book I bought was the Art of Fiction. Not having any idea where to start I found a passage in this book, I copied and taped it to my computer. This was my inspiration for my opening of TTRK. The Tale teller, omniscient POV, a setting remote in time and place . . .

 

“Tell us a tale,” the people said, and drew back like the tides of the Red Sea, “Of myths and monsters . . . of demons and dragons . . . .”

The Old Dane, gnarled and weathered as a druid oak, made his way to the top of the windswept hill, drawing near to the fire. He stood before the ancient standing stone and put his hand upon the Lia Fail, gently as a grandfather caresses the cheek of a child. “I have no fairy tales.” he sighed wearily, bent and buffeted by the wind, as if a great sadness upon him.

 

Though much has evolved in crafting my story – this opening has remained the same

 

 

Events are those scenes by which the character comes to know himself. I love this one. If you read any of my writing, even the MOD 1 exercises, you will see I always use this. This coming to an understanding, a moment of realization is the best part for me.

 

Genre crossing is behind most of the great literature. Epic and Romance. I’ve got that covered.

 

Fiction is an instrument to come to understanding. Make the world of characters come alive! Again I love the moment of Character’s realization, which is the reader’s moment of the same realization as well.

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

 

 

Other craft techniques, I have employed: Every chapter should open with Characters who want something desperately. A great work asks questions and then gives answers to the questions it raises. Show both sides of an argument – this gets to the heart of the matter – and proves Theme, by telling the Truth.

 

In serious fiction the highest form of delay or suspense is – AGONY OVER DECISION – CHOICE! I try to deepen my dilemmas, by always having a grinding crucible, unexpected complications, and nightmare choices, going on at the same time.

 

Treat passages individually – Description – Dialogue – Action. Develop separately. This is great clarification I needed. Define action first, need, tension, conflict, then dialogue if relevant, then description.

 

Resist temptation to explain. A good writer can get anything across with action, dialogue – Never say what character is thinking. This is a tricky balance between interesting interior monologue, and not explaining. My favorite writer who does this well is Cormac McCarthy in his Cities of the Plains trilogy. I try hard to enrich the character, add to emotion or suspense of dilemma, in interior monologues. But leaving subtext, so although you get into their minds, something is hidden, from the reader or the character himself.

 

Great subtext, or that which is hidden is what makes a scene, and characters most interesting to me. I have found that most historical fiction books I have read, to not do this. Watching and listening to Characters to find out what is really going on, what they are hiding – is so much more interesting, and endearing, that being told what they are thinking.

 

 

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program. If so, what were they?

 

There was one discrepancy: between Gardner and your Program.

 

I’ll never forget how I felt, having just decided that I would do whatever needed to be done, to write Brian story, and bought Gardner’s book first, and read on page 12, his criticizing the potential of writers without University Creative Writing, and Literature Degrees. My BS was in the medical field, with no creative writing - only technical.

 

Gardner:

 

- “A self-educated” writer is sure to bear the mark of his limitation.”

- “One notices the spottiness and awkwardness of their knowledge which makes their work less than it might have been.”

- “One finds that their interpretations, suffer by comparison with what the myths really say and mean.”

- (I have an interpretation of the trials of Beowulf in TTRK, as Gardner has in Grendel which differs from his – looking forward to comparison and critique)

- “No one can hope to write really well without a University Education.”

 

Of course telling Brian . . . and me, that we can’t possibly accomplish something . . . is throwing down the gauntlet. I vowed that day . . . that I would prove him wrong . . .

 

I love the NY Pitch philosophy, in contrast to Gardner’s. If you are willing to work hard, learn, take advice, as long as it takes, you can achieve a Break Out Novel. And Michael and his team will do everything they can to help you. Also, offering the Author Salon, a successful plan to get there, and a short cut to agents and editors, as well. An entire package for success, with no prejudice.

 

 

 

WRITE AWAY ~ Elizabeth George

 

 

1.How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

This book is very helpful, and gave me the following new incite. It is the character in jeopardy keeps you reading. Dialogue is Character. Show don’t tell. The greater significance of setting, not just magical . . . but seducing, threatening, prejudiced, nurturing. Give the Scene’s setting a name – Seducer, Threat, Lover, Guardian, Banshee, Mother, Loyal Friend, Evil.

 

Every scene starts with a Character’s longing. Think of events of Dominoes, building to unexpected end. Work- Delusions, Obsessions, Compulsions, Addictions, Denial, Hysterical Ailments, Hypochondria, Illnesses, irrational Behavior, Destructive, Manias, and Phobias, Sexuality – Use anecdotes to illustrate all the above.

 

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

 

Decisions under pressure – is who they are. Show don’t tell. Describe from a pov under pressure. No need to be obnoxiously explicit. Use Step Outline. Subtext is what is going on underneath – the best part.

 

 

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program? If so, what were they?

 

Nothing conflicted with the writing program, only reinforced it.

 

 

 

THE WRITING LIFE Annie Dillard

 

 

1. How did the book help you as a writer? What overall aspects of it taught you something?

 

Very interesting. Lovely prose – I found myself swept away to another time and place – a week long, Women’s Writers Free Verse Conference. Looking back on my life . . . Only the pain of am impacted wisdom tooth extraction, and breech birth, without anesthesia, compares.

 

I found the complete randomness of it, the rubric’s cube concentration it required, the constant motion, the swaying back and forth between nuanced observation and illuminating metaphor, exhilarating. Like free-balling in a kilt, on a windy day, must feel. A freedom and sensation, sadly, I am incapable of experiencing, (Sorry, I’m still far and away with my soul mate Maass).

 

One excruciatingly beautiful and descriptive slice of verbiage, after another, never-ending . . . Wonderful metaphors, descriptions, Easy to see why it is a prize winning piece of literature, and to be admired.

 

And sadly foreign to me – a world without story.

 

I think I read someplace, only the Dunkards and the Caliphate of Isis are worlds without story . . . .

 

Long ago, after reading several blistering critiques of some of my favorite authors; I vowed I would never criticize a fellow writer's writing. . As we are all in the trenches together. However, I also felt that any unfair criticism of another's efforts - fair game.

 

I would take issue with two things, however, since Annie drew first blood.

 

First:

Dillard’s utter distain for writings, she deems “striving to be film worthy”, “have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous odor. I cannot name what . . .” My story started out as a screenplay, and one of the things that separates it from other writing; is the cinematic imagery, action, use of subtext, pacing, building of sequence to excruciating dilemma, moment of realization and decision. Comparing my efforts to - a pathetically confused, dry-humping butterfly – seems a bit choleric.

 

Indeed, a Dillard world would be devoid of the treasures of all great films – Images of: deep morally conflicted characters, that rip your heart out with their yearnings, dilemmas and choices, crucibles, triumph and tragedies, subtext, dialogue to die for, (James Goldman – Lion in Winter, Robin and Marion – my favorites) Story-telling . . . that makes you laugh, and cry, wrenches your guts out, and changes your heart forever – theme written with blood, and excruciatingly beautiful images, upon your soul . . . .

 

Dillard: “In my view, the more literary the book – the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep.”

 

This explains everything.

 

Second:

Her utter distain for a poor inchworm, bullying more like it, of a little fellow, 1.426 millionth her body weight, doing his best to get through the day with the gifts God gave him – who might be perceived as being obviously trapped in the nightmare, of a literary writer, without an outline, she so eloquently recounts in her opening paragraph.

 

Dillard: “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick . . . it digs a path and you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end . . . You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go were the path leads. At the end of the path you find a box canyon. The writing has changed . . . The new place interests you because it is not clear . . . I hope the tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” Lovely metaphor . . .

 

With all due respect, if Dillard were an artist, with all her gifts, and by her own words – she would intrepidly start at one corner, and process her art on canvass, like an inkjet printer, diagonally from one border to the other. expecting to create: a mountain or seascape. . . the face of child . . . a dying warrior . . . not by planning out: light against shadow, and shadow against light, nuance of tone, warm or cool, pattern against simplicity and simplicity against pattern, perspective, fore, mid, distance, layer after exquisite layer, guiding your mind’s eye, and a theme, and focal point, saving the very last strokes, after all others, the symbol overlaid, echoes from the beginning – adding the luminescence of,sun, moon and star light, shining through: cloud, leaves, the tangled hair of a lover . . . playing upon shadow, drawing in your eye, and heart with it . . . breathing in life . . .

 

All the most beautiful art – is images - and tells a story.

 

Dillard - an abridged excerpt, page 6-7. My favorite passage, and her most enlightening metaphor, onwriting.

 

“Few sights are so abused as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life . . . pale and thin, an inch long, and apparently unfit for life in this world. It wears out its days in constant panic. Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grass blade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail . . . he rears back and flails in the air, apparently searching for a footing. What! No further? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. I’s body makes a loop. All it has to do is slide up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. . . . Its davening, apocalyptic prayers . . . bump it into something. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grass blade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings you to the universe’s rim. And now – What! What! No further?Yike!” “Why don’t you just jump?” I tell it, disgusted, “Put yourself out of your misery.”

 

Dillard must be from Bakersfield, perhaps Bisbee . . . There is nothing much cuter than a little green inch worm . . . to call him dimwit, unfit for life in this world, in constant panic, wretched, dumb luck, blind frantic numbskull, in virtual hysteria, disgusting - "Why don't you just jump. Put yourself out of your misery" . . . . I say, is looking through the glass, harshly.

 

Have you never walked barefooted, out in tall grassy meadow in spring, still dew laded, and lain on your back looking up at the clouds floating by, wishing you were on one. When you spy . . . pure unadulterated yearning, desire against all odds, infatigable try, a worthy quest, a warrior's heart (all the stuff of story) - a little green friend . . . reaching . . . believing . . . there is no chasm too wide . . . And you extend a friendly finger . . . a conduit to his dreams . . . and in that moment, you are transformed, through his eyes into – God’s miracle . . . a part of his most worthy life’s journey . . . .

 

“In the habitation of dragons . . . a highway, shall there be . . . and you are his way.” Isaiah

 

Dillard did however, elicit emotion – she move me to tears – for the poor maligned inch worm, intrepid, striking out into unknown, relentless, valorous, trusting in fate. . . inch by inch, if his courage carries him far enough - he will find his way home.

 

Pithy as well, her statement, she does not care if her readers die, before she finishes her book.

 

I cannot relate to this at all. If I don’t get Brian’s story out there . . . and his life remains stolen, defamed and forgotten, forever . . . I’m going to self-immolate!

 

Perhaps MS Dillard could use a little cheering up, a rose colored glass, a smidgen of a sense of humor. May I suggest . . . Mark Twain’s (one of my heroes, also maligned by the literary writers of his day) opinion on the subject:

 

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Twain

 

I loved the film . . . .

 

 

2. What two or three major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or your novel?

 

~ Not outlining, makes you a cranky.

~ Not being able to tell a story . . . makes you verbose.

~ Denigrating inchworms for fame and fortune, makes you a bully, and a coward . . . and a Pulitzer Prize winner!

 

I just happen to have the criteria for winning a Pulitzer Prize taped to my laptop – eye level:

 

“Up ending stories express the optimism, hopes and dreams of mankind, a positively charged vision of the human spirit; life as we wish it to be.”

 

Ironically, of all the how to write books reference books I have in my library . . . I have read, dog-eared and highlighted, hundreds . . . Annie Dillard provided me with what I yearned for above all else, and for this I shall always be grateful – One single IMAGE that illustrates, without words, the Theme of the entire incredible story of Brian Boru's life:

 

~ The most insignificant among us, can achieve the impossible, if he has desire enough to dream it, courage enough to fight for it, heart enough to never give up, and guts enough to pay the price . . .

 

Now and forevermore I shall think – inch worm.

 

Yah, baby . . . You go little inch worm! . . . That’s why they call it – a leap of faith . . . Oh Ye, who gaze through the looking glass darkly - with your cup half empty . . .

 

You just keep on . . . keepin’ on, with your mighty warrior’s heart . . . and believe . . . .

Ooo Rah . . . little stud . . . Ooooooooo . . . Raaaaaaaaaah!

 

 

3. Was there anything in the books that obviously conflicted with lessons and readings in our novel writing program. If so, what were they?

 

Yes. The writing program, I have come to love – is all about telling a great story - with unforgettable characters that make you laugh and cry - touch your heart and inspire your soul forever.

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