For this first post, I’d like to compare two disparate books on the art of writing fiction, one geared toward commercial interests, the other literary writers, both fresh voices and the “elderly statesmen” of the arts. So we’ll call this first duel “big money” versus the “high arts.” Which do you aim for as a writer? We’ll start with the money.
Recently, I attended an all day conference in lovely Madison, Wisconsin. The keynote address was delivered by New York agent Donald Maass. I expected him to focus on the kinds of novels I don't intend to write, mainly thrillers and pop lite fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the lecture.
Donald Maass drew heavily from his book Writing the Breakout Novel to talk about the sacred trade of storytelling. What makes a story timeless, a classic? How can novelists write in such a way that our readers go on thinking about our stories long after they set them down? I highly recommend his book and if you ever get the chance to hear Maass, he's an excellent speaker, both charming and humorous. As an agent, Maass sees hundreds of manuscripts come and go in a month, so he's honed a keen sense of what works and what doesn't in a novel.
Below, I've included some highlights of the lecture. I took copious notes, eight pages worth in fact. I was a hundred pages into my second novel when I attended the session. Afterwards, I immediately decided to start over and apply some of these wise storytelling principles. If you attend one of his lectures, I guarantee you'll come with ideas for your story!
Add heroic qualities and add them right away. Do we care deeply about the characters we are reading about? What causes us to care about a character?
You must show opposite qualities, too. This opens extra character dimensions, by creating conflict and a possibility for change.
Build Inner Conflict. A powerful quality, being torn in two directions. What the hell is this author doing? When are you still thinking about a main character after finishing a novel? The inner conflict will stay with you and resonate. The reader will be aghast at the moment of quitting.
Create larger than life characters. What’s one thing your character says or does the way anybody would? Now how can you make this as odd as possible, unexpected or just plain strange?
What is the goal for this particular scene? Write out the goals and go down the list to the lower portion. Dig deeper into motivations.
Who is the antagonist in the story? Make them more multi-dimensional, so they will be frightening. Enemies are sometimes closer than friends. The more we understand the antagonist’s view, the more gripping the conflict.
Raise the personal stakes. What is your protagonist’s main problem? Now how can you make it worse? Much, more worse? You must reinforce the problem and raise the stakes. Can you make those terrible circumstances the end of your story?
Storytelling should take us extraordinary places. In order for that to happen you must make the hero go to hell and make your reader afraid of the outcome.
Try to weave in three plot layers. Have scenes take place in unexpected places. Weave plot layers together so they intersect.
Delineate the inner turning point by fixing down the passage. You must find a way to measure change, to measure how your character feels differently about a place. You must make the change dramatic.
In the first thirty pages look for back story. Cut it. Three defining moments in the past, three separate scenes. Put this later in the story, where it will illuminate the character. Back story bogs down the beginning of a story. It should instead answer a question we’ve had all along. Let it be revelatory.
With individual passages, add tension. Take your pages and toss them up in the air. Pluck up a page at random. Introduce apprehension. What tension comes from the point of view character? Tension all the time is the great secret of successful fiction. What happens next? How are all these tensions going to be resolved?
Notes from: Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. Cincinatti: Writer's Digest Books, 2001.
The second text focuses on literary writers, the ones who win the Pen/Faulkner and grants from the Guggenheim foundation, even if they don’t score big contracts from publishers. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, Novel Voices was edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais. The editors interviewed seventeen authors for this collection, so I’m going to include my favorite quotes from each working writer.
Averaging seven pages, the interviews provide a good quick read, a little infusion of energy during your coffee break before you head back toward writing that great American novel. Because of this format, I consider this text more helpful for teachers of creative writing. There are quotes here that are instructive toward teaching fiction and the craft of short stories. Here are the authors featured along with a favorite quote.
- Richard Bausch. “When asked about his fiction, Bausch says that he takes characters whom he loves and visits trouble upon them.”
A story generator he uses for students. “Here is an opening line; write a story about it: ‘I kicked him in the stomach; it was like being in church.’…One exercise is to describe a field of flowers from the perspective of someone who is about to kill a child. Or try to deliver a situation through dialogue only.”
“I don’t teach writing. I teach patience and toughness, stubbornness and willingness to make mistakes and go on.”
- Charles Baxter. “The truth is that you can say most of what you want to say about human beings and their behavior with a relatively limited number of characters if you send them through enough fiery hoops.”
- Andre Dubus. “…and a wise old Jesuit once told me, “If there were no sins, there wouldn’t be art.”
- Stuart Dybek. Responding to a question about “underlying rhythmic coherence:…It’s a feeling akin to understanding a character in order to be able to inhabit that character either on the page or stage…Gardner has another great line in which he talks about description as writer’s connection to his unconscious.”
“I believe craft is the way the writer makes magic, the gifts through which the writer transcends his or her limitations and participates in a power borrowed or stolen from the gods.”
- Richard Ford. “And I had begun, out of youthful ignorance and ardor, to associate darkness—emotional, spiritual, moral darkness, with high drama. It’s not unheard of. But I realized I could no longer sustain identifying darkness with drama.”
- Ernest J Gaines. “They say if you steal from one person you are a plagiarizer; if you steal from a hundred people, you are a genius.”
- William Gass, on reading as a writer. (Something this site is dedicated toward.) “This is one of the great losses of the profession, either as a critic or a writer. You don’t have the innocence or the openness that says, ‘Let me read and have a good time,’ that you might have had when you started out. Instead you think, ‘What am I going to say about this?’ or ‘What is the story telling me about how I am to write?’”
- Tim Gautreaux. “People own the territory they are born into.”
“Most editors have a vision, or least a notion of what’s good for their readers, and I trust that.”
“When you teach creative writing, you basically say the same things over and over.”
“Understand that if you are writing fiction it will probably take twenty years before you begin to know what you’re doing.”
“A Jew and an Arab get onto a streetcar. There’s an immediate conflict there. A joke is the archetype of all human entertainment.”
“I’ve considered myself more of a teacher than a writer all these years, and a husband and a father. I’ve put twelve million hours in honey-do projects into this marriage. That has always been first.”
“I’ve read that a woman is born with all of the eggs she is ever going to produce. I think that a story writer is sort of like that. Sometimes, when a story is successful and complete, I feel like I’ve given birth to something.”
From: Novel Voices. Levasseuer, Jennifer and Kevin Rablais. Cinncinati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2003.