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Book Reports, Diane Mulligan


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The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

1. John Gardner is very smart and talented, but also extremely condescending and pompous. As such, I often found myself sort of chuckling reading this book, as he called certain types of would-be writings insulting names, but when I look past the tone, I know there's good advice here. Gardner's emphasis on the importance of reading and engaging in deep, meaningful exploration and study of writing craft is well taken, but I do feel this book is for undergrads and as such was basic for me. I've been teaching English for 16 years. For me, the book had good reminders but no new information.

2. Gardner's advice about clarity and the need to make characters and settings vivid and fully realized for the reader is a nice reminder, as is his repeated insistence on never forgetting the audience, and thereby avoiding falling into self-indulgent prose. I also think it's nice that he specifies that he's not really writing to advice those who write genre fiction, although I don't see why he had to call such writing junk. Some of us enjoy genre fiction, and literary fiction isn't always fun to read. I also particularly liked this quote: "No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others. (Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.)"

3. I think Gardner would not approve of the emphasis in this class on commercially viable stories. The fact is he's a literary snob and quite often literary fiction is not commercially successful.


Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

1. I first read this book five or six years ago, and after reading it I went on to read all of Maas's books and to get his Breakout Novel Writing Workbook. I love reading books about writing craft, and I generally read whatever I can get my hands on. Honestly, my copy is so full of notes and bookmarks on key lessons, I hardly know where to start in discussing it. Over the years, I've used this book whenever I'm feeling stuck on a project. I'll flip through the chapter headings for something that feels useful to whatever I'm writing, I'll reread that chapter, and try applying its principles. Perhaps the best thing Maass does it push writers to wait and consider several possibilities for how any situation might unfold and how a character might feel. He constantly reminds us to find ways of surprising the reader.

2. One major lesson I took away from this book is the concept of the antagonist not simply as something that opposes the protagonist but that actually wants the same thing as the protagonist. Another is the idea of the conflicted character. The protagonist should just want one thing; she should want two things that are mutually exclusive and therefore she will have to make hard choices. That instantly ups the tension.

3. Honestly, I don't think any of the advice here conflicted with your advice. Maybe your insistence of the use of third person - I don't think Maass would necessarily agree with that.


Write Away by Elizabeth George

1. I was interested to read about craft from a bestselling mystery author as I am currently writing a sort of mystery and as I think creating plot is one of the biggest challenges for me. That said, I once again found this book to be very basic with long, dry explanations of basic building blocks. I am always intrigued to see how other writers work, so I like the final chapters where she gives a glimpse into her process.

2. I liked to hear about how George creates realistic and vivid details, even visiting and photographing her settings. That was a nice reminder to me that I don't always have to just rely on my imagination. On the whole, though, I really didn't learn much from this book. It was fine reminders, but nothing that turned on a light bulb for me.

3. I didn't know notice anything in this book that would really contradict the lessons of this course.


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

1. Another book that I first read a long time ago. This one I first read in college, so 16 or 17 years ago. I like Dillard's lyrical style and no-nonsense approach, but I have to admit, I tried to read one of her novels and I didn't especially like it. That said, I love how wonderfully quotable Dillard is in philosophizing about the writing life. What struck me when I first read it was her insistence that to be a writer one must just keep writing, as a habit, all the time. That's advise I take seriously and I have solid routines to keep myself writing. As Dillard says, "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. A net for catching days." I also think her advice not to hold anything back is really important. Give you all to every story you write.

2. I found this book to be more general inspiration and philosophy than concrete advise about writing, so I'm not sure how to answer this question. Dillard is someone I turn to when I need a boost. If I feel I'm in a slump, I read a chapter for a gentle reminder about the value of pursuing beauty in art and giving oneself the time to focus on craft instead of trying to rush to the finish.

3. This is a course about writing for commercial success. Dillard's advice seems to suggest that commercial success isn't a worthy goal. If commercial success comes, great, and if not, oh well. So that's a pretty big conflict, I believe.

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