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BOOK REPORTS - Stephen Scherer


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"The Art of Fiction" by John Gardener

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

I found this book to be quite valuable. Although Gardener mentions a number of concepts I already agreed with, it was helpful to have them spelled out in a clear and rational way.

Gardener spends much of the book focusing on the concept that a fictional story is a kind of dream in which the reader is temporarily transported out of their world. The goal of a fiction writer is to keep his reader completely submerged in this fictional world or else risk losing the reader's interest. With only a few words a writer can easily sell his or her dream to their audience.

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

Gardener suggests that clumsy writing is certain to distract a reader. He points toward some potential problems: using passive voice, poor rhythm, excessive/pointless explanation, sentimentality ("the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause"), frigidity (when a writer "is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be") and mannerism ("writing that continually distracts us from the fictional dream with stylistic tics" intended by the author to "intrude himself, prove himself different from all other authors.")

In regards to originality a fictional work, Gardener notes that "novelty comes chiefly from ingenious genre-crossing or the elevation of familiar materials." This is a valuable piece of advice and an ideal to which I aspire.

The author believes that writers need to constantly educate themselves. I strongly support this notion. He suggests educating oneself in a number of foreign languages, as this provides a writer with new ways of exploring and understanding language. Gardener mentions that many of the greatest writers knew Greek and Latin, as well as one or two modern languages.

Recently I've been using an app called Duolingo to learn Russian, German and Spanish (unfortunately, they do not yet have Latin available). I don't expect to be fluent overnight, but after using the app for the past month, it has given me a new appreciation for language.

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 did not come across anything in this book that contradicted the Algonkian prgram lessons. I believe "The Art of Fiction" is an excellent resource for writers of all abilities.

 

"Writing the Breakout Novel" - Donald Maass

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

Of the four required books, I found Donald Maass' "Writing the Breakout Novel" to be the most straightforward and easy to read. Before joining Author Salon, I previously read Maass' book: "Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling". I found both of these books to be very similar and useful.

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

Maass provides key ingredients to the breakout novel premise:

1)  Plausibility - Readers empathize with those characters to which they can relate. Readers cannot become emotionally attached to characters in an implausible story.
2Inherent conflict - A story requires conflict and this means that safe, comfortable places and circumstances cannot last for long in a story. There must be conflict between two opposing forces.
3) Originality - Human nature is a constant, but our perception of it is always in flux. Originality can be created by defying expectations and through the combination of "two discrete story elements".
4) Gut emotional appeal - A breakout novel's premise must hit their audience with a deep emotional impact. Sincere and heartfelt stories are memorable because they touch the reader in ways that are universally common.
 

Maass says that characters must be larger than life but not unrealistic. The realism of their physical characteristics, speech and action aren't what make them larger than life. It is their ability to grow - to bravely accept and overcome challenges in ways that the reader never could that appeals most to a broad audience.

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 didn't find anything in this book that contradicted the Algonkian program lessons. He does have an outdated and narrow-minded view of eBooks. However, this is due to the fact that "Writing the Breakout Novel" was written in 2001, before eBooks really became popular. If I remember correctly, he addresses this issue in 2012's "Writing 21st Century Fiction" and admits he was wrong.

 

"Write Away" - Elizabeth George

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

While reading this book I found it a bit difficult to get through at times. However, after reviewing my notes I realized that "Write Away" has lots of solid and helpful advice.

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

As in Maass' book, George points out that no one wants to read about happy, secure and comfortable characters. A story thrives on characters who have fallen into a pit and must struggle to escape from their horrible circumstances.

She notes the importance of the relationship between a character's dialogue and their setting. The setting must be one that the reader wishes to explore after having an intense first reaction to that place. Characters are shaped and defined by their environment and dialogue is a reflection of that interaction. Word choices reveal the nature of characters, the time and place in which they live, their education level and their biases. For example, upper class characters must speak with an upper class affectation or they will feel inauthentic.

An important part of storytelling is setting up scenes that present dramatic questions that aren't immediately answered. Before each question is answered another question is laid down to drive the reader's interest. This creates suspense.

George also notes the importance of consistent characterization. This is something a writer must be aware of throughout the writing of a novel. An inconsistent character immediately loses credibility in the eyes of the reader.

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

The major difference between Elizabeth George's methods and the Author Salon lessons are the types of plot structures she examines. She assesses Campbell's Hero's Journey and Freitag's Pyramid, both of which hold no interest for me.

However, she does mention the Seven-Step story line which is very similar to Algonkian - hook, anticipation, plot point #1, midpoint, plot point #2, climax (narrative and dramatic) and denouement.

 

"The Writing Life" - Annie Dillard

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

Of the four books assigned, this book was easily the least interesting. I also found it thoroughly useless. Reading "The Writing Life" was an absolute slog and I couldn't wait to finish it so I'd never have to look at it again.

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

A few statements she made were valid or somewhat interesting, but nothing I hadn't heard or thought of before. For example:

"Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not rage by its triviality."

Dillard also insists that a writer should not hold onto something good for the end of their novel or for another book all together. If a writer has an impulse to hold onto something for later it is a signal they should be using it now.

While in most cases I don't think this idea is wrong, it also overlooks the point that some interesting ideas just won't mesh well with a current plot. In many cases, perhaps, it is a good idea to use everything you have now, but one also runs the risk of throwing together a clunky plot just for the sake of using up every "brilliant" idea. Maybe some elements would naturally work better in another book. It seems to me it should be a case by case basis, rather than a universal rule.

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

Perhaps because this book is a memoir about a writer who doesn't thrill me and whose advice is sparse, the book held no real appeal. I'm just not all that interested in reading about how her house plants died because she was busy writing or how she once burned her tea kettle. I really don't care about that sort of thing.

This book also has nothing to do with commercial fiction - there's no emphasis on (or interest in) plotting, hook or the breakout concept. I think it is a good idea to assign a writer's memoir for this course, these sorts of works can often be inspiring, but I feel like this book was a bad choice. Something along the lines of Stephen King's "On Writing" at least has the benefit of being entertaining and informative.

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On 5/6/2018 at 2:29 PM, StephenScherer said:

Gardener suggests that clumsy writing is certain to distract a reader. He points toward some potential problems: using passive voice, poor rhythm, excessive/pointless explanation, sentimentality ("the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause"), frigidity (when a writer "is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be") and mannerism ("writing that continually distracts us from the fictional dream with stylistic tics" intended by the author to "intrude himself, prove himself different from all other authors.")

Thumbs up on this one!

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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