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Book Review by Noreene S


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Book Review - Part 2 - Module 8

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This book plus some of the assignments within The Art of the Novel gave me permission to be more descriptive in my novel. I fear that it also led me to start too many chapters with exposition. My excuse is wanting to assure that readers know when they pick up the book each time the place and the point of view.

The chapters of Dillard's book that I hope to keep in mind are the last two, Chapters 6 and 7, with her analogies of writing and Ferrar Burn's struggle to bring in the log from the sea and then Dave Rahm, the stunt pilot. The first tale is about the writer's struggle against and with the tide. The message is to keep rowing for the tide will change, ditto with novel writing. I am not done processing the long Rahm tale. One lesson for writing is in the line, "If he had noticed how he felt, he could not have done the work." To me, these chapters are about a state of mind and dedication necessary to inhabit the writer's world, a lonely one according to Dillard.

The book does not conflict with the lessons of the novel writing program but adds to it. The book addresses the experience of writing. The requirement of a space set up for writing alone. The struggle that one must expect if one chooses this life.


Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

This book like Dillard's augments the modules. The author took me through fundamentals of writing such as character, story, plotting, and dialogue. Again, I found this book pushing me to expand a writing element, setting. As George says, "Setting Is Story." She explains early in the second chapter, "Setting not only promotes the reader's understanding of what kind of novel he's reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience." To me, she puts forth a challenge when she claims that the essence of "Show, don't tell" comes from setting. She says, "Through a character's environment, you show who he is." She takes this further to the importance of a character's internal landscape. This gives a character plumpness. Another lesson is in her discussion of plot.

I like her message that every event in plot must have causality. "Suspense actually is that state of wanting to know what's going to happen to the characters and how it is going to happen to them." She advises creating early in the book creation process a "step outline" on a single sheet of paper to see that scenes are "causally linked." With this approach, she works through the craft of writing and can then focus on the art of writing. Two important sentences: "A character's inner conflict will show that he is real." And "The external conflict he faces will show that there is something at stake." These I need to keep in mind as well as, "At the climax, however the character stands before the reader fully revealed."

I can go on and on as in reading this book the first time, I underlined a lot. This in contrast to the Annie Dillard book which I did not and therefore, had to re-read to write my report.


The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner

This was the first book on the craft of writing that I bought, and I did so years ago when I fantasized about being a writer. I have never read the entirety of the book Every time I take up the book to learn from it there is a point when I feel Gardner haranguing me in words I must wade through. It is usually about half way through. I skim the book searching to be engaged again. His "first and last important rule" reminds me of meeting with Robert Olen Butler and that author's admonishment to aim to be literary. Likewise, Gardner shouts on page 7, "there are no rules for real fiction." To get to that point though, the writer in training must master technique like a pianist goes over and over his Hanon exercises. She must read and she must become educated in aesthetic law. Gardner commands the reader to get a good university education. If he were writing this book today perhaps he would join the Algonkian voices in denouncing the proliferation of Masters in Fine Arts programs and argue for experience. Like Butler, Gardner tells the writer to go into his unconscious. Like Dillard and George, he instructs the writer that description is powerful, a means into the unconscious. I would like to discuss all this and straighten out in my head about "Show Don't Tell."


Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

I am a big fan of Donald Maass' books on writing. When I read them, I pause, and I write. The take-away message of this book is that getting a novel published is becoming tougher by the minute, but it can be done with good storytelling. Like Algonkian instruction, Maass demands "conflict on every page" and encourages details. Maass says, "For a setting to feel broadly representative, it must be highly specific." In all these books, I seek the road signs to creating characters that readers care about. In skimming these books that I read months ago to make this report, I am seeing, this time, the message about place as more than description that slows the narrative but part of the characters. I was relieved to read Maass' admonishment about surprise endings. Such an ending means keeping secrets from the readers and that is impossible in good writing. Very profound is his discussion of the Postmodern "dream of becoming something different" and it's contrast to the "Modern's Era's existential mandate to accept ourselves as we are." My characters go from being New York successes to facing a gigantic loss and in the end, they are no longer perfect, they are scarred but with bigger hearts. He advises build with scenes. There are no conflicts in this book with the Algonkian method. He complements the market-oriented Algonkian approach.

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