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Book Reports---Mary Helen Sheriff

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The Writing Life

1. Dillard's perspective of the writing life provides insight into the reality of writing for a living, rather than the romantic notions that my brain tends to fixate upon. I love how she gives permission for it to take years to write a book. I often berate myself for being so slow, but Dillard gives me permission to take my time. I also needed the reminder to create a schedule. It is all too easy to not get around to writing without one.

2. On the practical end she had some motivating comments about revision. Two that particularly struck me were, "I hope you will toss it all and not look back," and "You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now." Both of these comments were the tough love I needed at the time I read them.

The other lesson of Dillard is subtler one. Her prose, and in particular the power of her descriptions, is phenomenal. I'd like to believe that in reading great writing, we internalize some of the language and structure and rhythm. I'm not sure how much this is true, but if we never read, we certainly wouldn't be able to do it.

3. The book itself is a contradiction of the program. This is not commercial fiction. On an obvious level it's a memoir not fiction, but still I think this program would argue that having the plot structure of fiction would make even a memoir more commercial. This book isn't commercial, doesn't have a hook, it isn't high concept, it lacks much conflict. Of course, it's an older book, written by a famous writer, who is an amazing writer, so it doesn't need those things, but still a contradiction of the course.


Writing the Breakout Novel

1. Most writing books I've read focus on the craft of writing and "good writing." This study of a breakout novel brought to my awareness some concrete suggestions that aren't required for "good writing," but are for a breakout novel. I also appreciated the fact Maas background as an agent gives him a different perspective than writers and writing teachers who author most books on writing.

2. Prior to reading this I wasn't entirely clear on the definition of a premise. Page 35 has a terrific one "any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as the finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken." This guiding force also seems important in revision - i.e., what is non-negotiable. I also appreciated what he describes as the 4 keys: plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.

The chapter on stakes was fodder for some revision in my novel. In particular, Eve was depressed, but I didn't have her suicidal in the first draft. I also worked to make my characters more principled as a result this. This chapter also pushed me to dig deeper into my settings for details that might make them more original and meaningful.

Finally, the chapter on theme encouraged me to dig out some symbolism that was already there (birds), weave it further, and relate it to the characters' search for a home.

3. Not so much a contradiction, but I do thank Maass' approach to plot is different than this course. This course teaches a formula, whereas Maass acknowledges that there are successful plots that don't fit this rigid formula. Maass and Algonkian agree though on the essential elements of a plot. He is merely more loosey-goosey on the structure of those elements.


The Art of Fiction

1. This book did not help me as a writer. I hated it and wasted most of my energy while I was reading it and hating it. In part, because the author is condescending and also because it reads like it was written by a college English teacher, who while shows talent at analyzing writing is a boring writer himself. I can't believe this thing is a classic. I've read so many better books on writing.

2. Two tips that I should employ in my writing are that verbs with auxillary are strong and to resist the temptation to explain.

3. The biggest contradiction is that it focuses on the art of writing more that than the commercialism of writing. Not that the two can't and don't merge, but...


Write Away

1. Her discussion on the multiple ways to structure a scene was helpful and new to me.

2. I love the Talking Head Avoidance Devices list. I also thing the causality discussion is important for me to note. I'm not sure I successful embraced that concept in this work-in-progress.

3. Once contradiction is how she uses character prompt sheets. While in this course we filled them out for major characters, she suggests glancing at it as you free-write about characters. While she refers to several different plot structures (3 Act, Hero's Journey, Gustav Freitag's Pyramid), none of them is the plot structure used in this course. And her running plot outline is different approach to planning the book as well.


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