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Cavis Adams. Book Reports. "Writing The Breakout Novel" Donald Mass.

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“Writing The Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass.  


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


Well I have to mention the actual literal information and instruction that the book imparts, as I would have to with the others. Besides the information that helped me especially, was the overall mindset with which Maass approaches writing. Often I think, and I suspect of other novice or “non-mainstream” writers, that I conflate the creative quality of what I write with the expected success of the work on the general commercial market, a conflation of 1 + 1 = 2 kind of formulae. One danger in this way of thinking is that a writer’s aspirations can be crushed when the market says no; 1+1 equals 2, provided they are the right caliber of 1s and in the correct arrangements. In other terms, pouring one’s creative heart and soul into something will not equal commercial marketability or success, unless that creativity is tempered with structure and tools proven to work on a greater level. And that is ok. I think that the ability of a creator to understand that processes that happen inside the brain, even/especially creative processes, have a left brained component to them. The acceptance of this truth, on an innermost level, allows the writer to detach from an illogical emotional attachment to drafts at a given point, allowing for more objective criticism via structure and measures, an attitude that actually allows the writing to grow and develop. This attitude must be rooted intimately within the writer, otherwise the conflict between the writer and the market will be greater than that on the pages. One can always save those first drafts to curl up with or read to a smaller, captive audience. But… at the same time, and not contractively, there is freedom for the writer with the right brain to write passionately.   “Let yourself care because to that is to live with passion—and it is passionate stories that your readers crave.” (Maass, 233).  

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

If I must choose I will articulate the top two with reference to the corresponding quotes.  

“…in fact I believe it is possible to fashion breakout novels from the stuff of actual human experience. It just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary.” (Maass, 104).  

Sometimes I find myself writing a character and being constrained with my internalized notions of believability. Like, how to write for an international terrorist when I have never known one outside of Hollywood? identifying the extraordinary in ordinary people allows me to grow those extroverted kernels to the front—pop them across the neighborhood perhaps, even extrapolate them to witness how they would have flourished if planted in the smoldering embers of a collapsed Soviet Union. I think extrapolating the extraordinary from a character, for all characters may be grounded in someone that occupies a space in our minds, allows us to see them as extraordinary as that barefooted farm girl running around—checkered-skirt over moxie… as extraordinary as the quantum string player peeking from under the dark brim—not from another galaxy but different dimension. He’s probably wicked, like that hater dude with raggedy shoes I ran with in high school. I could see him doing something like that, trying to recalibrate the materia of our universe as if it were his own wailing guitar.  


“‘Sometimes I think the same thing,” I said, “but we’ll probably tough it out.” “Yes, black people always do. We persevere. We always suffer in silence.” “Not always in silence,” I said to her. Did I mention Alex Cross is black? Cross knows what that costs but does not let it burden him.” (Maass 107).  

I think that being recognized as black means that one will be perceived as black, not just physically but too often, metaphorically. Not a new proposition, but the writer must be aware of this, since the social constructs one conjures in order to deal with reality, such as standing further from a white woman in the elevator so as not to appear threatening, can also manifest in his writing. He may get off the elevator and finish his novel in a way that intends to be just as inoffensive—like wondering how much one should censor a book report so as to soothsay the readers. I think that the best thing to do in such situations is to respect the other as an adult that can at least handle the truth of one’s existence if not grow from it. Get closer to the white woman in a closed space, maybe hug her… or not. But definitely write the novel with respect to the reader of all kindred, giving them the respect of not being coddled to like babies. Like the white woman they may scream for dear life, or they may give you an embrace that neither you nor she knew was in her. Accepting one’s blackness as a writer means hoping to be accepted, or asking to be rejected, and coming to grips with both. I think this is part of the coin that Maass is spinning in the above quotation; “I mention Alex Cross is black? Cross knows what that costs but does not let it burden him. 

I don’t mean that the be-all expression of blackness on a white page is to give expressions of shocking or catchy entendre, but like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, one must be comfortable with going there if necessary in the writing, to make the writing truly free and unbound by real and imagined social, cultural, racial… restraints. It is not always necessary to go there, as in places where one takes his readers to uncomfortable places, but a writer flies as high as necessary for the trip, so long as he knows that the sky is the limit. You have to write honestly to accomplish authenticity, something that is not cliché or stereotypical.    


I know this beckons courage that begins with the writer, but beckons to be reciprocated by the reader as well, as she must also find the courage within to receive certain realities intimately taboo. After biting such strange fruit, realizing the taste at first bitter has not killed her, she returns, hopefully, for the acquired taste and nutritional value. 


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 cannot say that there was anything in this book that conflicted with lessons in theory, sometimes there were references that were confusing at first, until I realized that it was a question of semantics. For example, when I read chapter 8 of this book, one of the main topics covered was “multiple points of view,” something that Maass obviously addressed with respect to different characters perspectives and often related to subplots. In the writing program I had come to relate the term “POV” in the context of writing scenes exclusively with the measures taught in the course; 1st, 2nd, 3rd POV, intimate etc.. Again things like this are obviously matters of semantics or terminology and not the underlying substance or meaning.      



“Write Away,” by Elizabeth George.  


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


This book leans heavily on quotations to illustrate many of the points and lessons to be learned. Not only did this approach help me in terms of exemplifying the specific concepts, but it also helped me to realize and appreciate, on a deeper level, the communal nature of the literary community. The ever-present works of remarkable story weavers past, present and […], are not only dazzling threads to follow in terms of instruction. They are, altogether, this greater web of literature upon which we both rest and build our trappings.  

“The young woman does not answer at once. Mrs. Armstid does not rattle the stove now, though her back is still toward the younger woman. Then she turns. They look at one another, suddenly naked, watching one another.” (“Write Away,” Page 118, quoted from “Light in August, William Faulkner). 

It is not only that we learn from the greats, but we keep them in mind when we write, sometimes citing then literally in our thoughts, figuratively on the page. This is not mimicry, though it may replicate in part, the patterns of weaving with which we man add our own humble threads into a greater web wherein Faulkner himself rests to this day.  


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

Sometimes would-be writers forget that all suspense actually is is that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them.”  

(George, 43). 

This struck me at first as a simpler definition of suspense, but upon further reflection, it strikes me as a more elegant perspective on suspense. The fact that suspense lies intrinsically in the workings of what may or not happen to the character means that said suspense can be as methodically suspended as the turnings of the gears of action. This is a gigantic breakthrough notion for me in the sense that instead of engineering suspense into the plot, I may try engineering a good plot with climactic happenings and then, going over it again, see where some of the gears of the clock can be slowed or put on time-out. This inspires me to go back over some of the scenes of the late Richard Wright, the writer who once made me stop reading a book because the suspense was just too much 


“That’s the promise we make to our readers when we offer them a piece of writing, by the way. We offer them the secure knowledge that, in a world where only death and taxes are definite, there is another world in which things play out to a logical and inevitable conclusion.” (George, 64).  

I believe somewhere that Faulkner himself had issues with the notion of escapism in fiction. That one of his philosophical northern stars was that the audience should not be given escapism, since this is what spoils them to actual reality, making it harder for them to deal when the good guys (gals) don’t ride off into the sunset at the end of the day. Sometimes they die, period. But on second thought, a marketing thought, escapism could be just the drug that the doctor ordered. We peddle alternate realities for the world, rollercoasters that show the edge but predictably keep them safe with a split-second snatching, while the world beyond the amusement park may wind down with mechanics of entropy. The homeless are out there in the parking lot with signs. This being the case, are we, the writers, guilty of selling the snake oils of escapism, the smoother the better the fix? We know what they want, the fiends, the poor bastards. Will they crawl into the warm pages of our books when winter comes and the sun refuses to give her light? At one point Faulkner said no! This is a statement on marketability versus the morality of art, while the true quest may be to achieve the optimal level of both, something that, Faulkner has proven possible for his time. Arguably, the hard stuff of realism nowadays may need to be metered in doses.  


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 notice anything in this book that substantially conflicted with the lessons and readings in our novel writing program.  



“The Art Of Fiction,” John Gardner  


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

But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs. (p 5-6).  

 This observation helps me in the sense that it removes much of the pressure to write according to some imagined industry standard. That is, while I must mark those techniques and philosophies that are proven successful, as in learning what works especially for marketability, I also must write to the best of my personal abilities as an artist. The creative process may feel dubious enough at times without the additional weight of measuring oneself constantly to the quintessential mainstream writer whose edge may not be in the literary skill, but could be due to some other factor such as content appeal or trend. Good literature does not necessarily equal marketability and vice versa. 

 While I hope to achieve marketability and recognition with my writing, it is good to the personal esteem to know that, in the beginning, I do not measure myself by popularity. I am free to write first.   


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

 “At all levels, not just in the highschools (as the above might suggest), novels, short stories, and poems have for years been taught not as experiences that can delight and enliven the soul but as things that are good for us, like vitamin C. (p. 49).”  

 The argument of what is best for the nourishment; do we feed people only that which is rich in nutrients, if in the end they will not eat it? Or make things extremely tasty and addictive so that they will ravish it and come back until they vomit? In the end stripping the substance and literary value in lieu of cheap ingredients—raunchier sex? CheckMore gruesomeness and blood? Check… A dash of ready-made tension (ready to kill the family puppy?). The consumers of junk food increasingly lose a taste for what will nourish their minds. Perhaps the answer is in the age-old recipe; coat the broccoli in a little cheese sauce, or put some more seasoning there, more palatable until the reader acquires the taste.  

 Sex, money and murder should be for a reason within the context of the story as is in real life. There should be shown, as with any tragedy, lessons learned, the effects on survivors and a reason to keep on living.  


3: Was there anything that obviously conflicted with lessons in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?  

 I think that the commentary on metafiction was interesting. The fact that metafiction can be successful in terms of marketability and critique of creativity, while breaking the structural rules of established “traditional” fiction, is in itself a kind of contradiction. In this sense the viability of metafiction contradicts not only the lessons so tediously delineated in the novel writing course, but possibly the philosophy of the art and science of literature. It seems that if there are no rules to literature and art, then one could write “Damn good too.” And consider it good writing by a subjective value. Though Gardner does specify that the value of metafiction is more of a novelty in that it parts from the traditional structure, the logical reality is that said value is found in the fact that there is no structure, like a rebellious offspring maybe. I think, and not of all metafictions of course, of strolling through an art museum and seeing a tiger painted so realistically, every detail and structure followed to a stroke, that I leap backwards at a glance of it. Is it fair that the painting next to it—an obvious spattering of blue, gold and green with a screw perforating the canvas—demands the same value and consideration in terms of my dollars? Perhaps and yes, if the crowd and word of mouth says so. But the eyes of the beholder will always tell the truth.  



Book Report, “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard.  

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

Reading this book and the overwhelming narrative and prose in which it is written presents much  

of the learning in a kind of “lived” story format, not one of strict bulletin-pointed lessons. To me, this presented more of a realistic “buy in” of the writing life, but more than that, demonstrated in the best way how the life of the devoted writer is inescapably intertwined with the life on the page. It is one thing to say that lived experience adds value and depth to one’s writing, it is another thing to show it the way Annie does. The book is appropriately titled “the writing life,” because we follow her life in writing and in the end, read how all the pain, passion and schizophrenic pulsing spills as ink from her real veins, delineating patterns of soaring aviation, highs that wouldn’t be properly appreciated had we—and more importantly she—no firsthand experience of the lows.    

While formal instruction, like a hearth, can constitute structure and purpose to the writer and his verses, his organically lived, dramatic experience is the fire that burns continually within.  


2: What 2 or 3 major lessons did you learn from the book that you can apply to your writing and/or novel?  

The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit paint. (p.69).”  


The creativity in writing, or any masterpiece, is not only in the mind; it is delivered through the brain as well, that physical organ which dictates the typing, the looking at of developing canvases, and processes the information derived from one of the 5 tangible senses. If at some point the masterpiece transcends the profane, it takes off and often lands from that same lowly plane. And here we are, thinking that the fitness of the brain can be neglected in the creative process, as if marshmallows and caffeine rushing through the vessels have no effect on how we type. Chess masters have nutritionists for a reason, a biological one. The writing life is one that must be nurtured physiologically as much as intellectually. For even on the molecular level—one tangible the other imagined real—there is no separation between art artist 


“…and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks (p. 71). 

The motivation of the true artist is to share and contribute, the need to create and give to life, a characteristic inherited of the divine nature. While at one time (and perhaps never), people en masse lauded the literary and moralistic contributions of writers, making the pathway to commercial success one that was harmonious with the artistic substance of the craft, it seems that in modern times (and perhaps always), the pathway to success is marked by marketable milestones. That is to say that while the end goal may be one of high literary and moral substance, the way to get there (with the masses following and not simply alone), is to feed the masses plenty of breaks along the hike. They must stop and have sex, the raunchier the better. They must stop to fight and hack at each other. They must be scared or threatened out of their wits and naturally some of them thrown over the cliff. So that clapping and panting, they will follow you happily to the top. Whether they suspect the exercise has been good for them the whole trip, well that may or not be one of the buy-ins. Is it the case that high art, like churches and religion, must bend to the trend of the popular worldly demands in order to remain relevant on a significant scale? If so, at what point, if any, should the tipping point be set? I think that though the question poses global ramifications, it is one that can be answered only by the individual.  


3: Was there anything in the book that obviously conflicted with lessons in our novel writing program? If so, what are they?  

I think that the focus of the novel writing program is understandably concerned with commercial viability. The fact that this book is primarily concerned with the writing life and hence, the more artistic aspects of the craft in many ways, crosses lines of pure artistic expression versus writing that is tempered for marketability as well. One example would be the following quote:  

It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses (p. 71).”  

While this is not an outright confliction, there is a crossroads at which the signing says it's impractical for the aspiring breakout writer to spend 5 years developing an artistic masterpiece when nobody knows his name. Of course, this is not a conflict of substance more than it is an opportunity to apply lessons to the future.  

Any other examples of conflict would be along these kinds of philosophical lines.   


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