Posts Tagged ‘the fire in fiction’

Okay, I must admit that I’m usually one of those people who like a book and swear it’s the BEST BOOK EVAR!! until I read the next book, which actually really is the best book ever. And the cycle continues. I tend to get excited about what I’m reading. Not sure if this is because I’m usually pretty good at choosing books that I’ll like, or because I’m good at choosing books that are awesome. Either way, I may be prone to hyperbolic fits of adoration when I discover a good read.

Having said that, and please don’t let this revelation eschew my credibility, I just read THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass and I loved it. For those who don’t know, Mr. Maass is CEO and uber-agent extraordinaire at Donald Maass Literary Agency. If you follow that little linky there, you’ll find he is not just a highly-experienced industry insider, he is also the author of fourteen novels published under pseudonyms. His other book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL has received much critical acclaim and it is one of the most recommended books for new authors looking to learn more about the craft of writing fiction. So, definitely check that one out if you get a chance, too.

But I didn’t read that one. I’ve already written my novel. I’m now working on the rewriting, which is why I chose to read THE FIRE IN FICTION. So, that is what I’ll be reviewing here. Focus people.

There are only nine chapters in this book, and the book itself is only 272 pages long, so this is a quick read. But, even so, I’m not going to waste our time by giving you a chapter by chapter breakdown of the book. I don’t think you want to hear little ol’ me give you a nine-paragraph review when you can just go to Amazon.com and use their handy “Look Inside” this book feature. That feature and this review should give you enough information to decide whether or not you want to throw down your hard-earned cash for this one.

Onto the book. My favorite chapters in this book were the chapters entitled “Protagonists vs. Heroes”, “A Singular Voice”, “Tension All the Time”, and “The Fire in Fiction.”

In the chapter on protagonists vs. heroes, Mr. Maass discusses the difference between a protagonist and a hero. According to him, “A protagonist is the subject of a story. A hero is a human being with extraordinary qualities.” This is to say that, protagonists can be ordinary people who do extraordinary things, but establishing them as extraordinary early on is necessary to make your reader care.

Maass argues that if your protagonist is an  average Joe, you must present him as a human being with deep emotions and hint at the underlying tension/event early on in the story. Otherwise, your readers will view him as just another average Joe to ignore as they make it about their day. Nothing extraordinary here, move along (ie. close the book.) Even if your protagonist is not the type of person most people would want to hang out with, maybe he’s the dark, broody type, establishing early on that they are worthy of the readers attention, and even their affection, will keep them reading.

The “Singular Voice” chapter discusses giving your characters voice. This involves digging deep inside the character to find what makes them distinct from you and me and especially from your other characters. Don’t be afraid to give your characters opinions and a strong point of view. Authors who write in the omniscient point of view tend to be very good at this. Jodi Picoult is a master at this. Pick up a few of her books at your local library – you won’t regret it.

In chapter 8, “Tension All the Time,” Maass goes into detail about that special ingredient that keeps you reading into the wee hours of the morning: Tension. Actually, Maass uses the term “microtension” to describe the opposing emotions, needs, and motivations experienced. If your protagonist wants to go to college but he knows his parents will lose their house if he doesn’t get a full-time job, this is inner conflict. If his mother is telling him to go to college and his father is telling him to get a job, this is outer conflict. Not all conflict involves explosions and fighting. Each chapter, each paragraph should be imbued with inner and outer conflict.

The final chapter, “The Fire in Fiction,” is about writing the story that you are most passionate about. Only then will the story be yours, instead of an imitation of your favorite author or the latest bestseller you just finished reading. Writing about what matters to you is what your ultimate goal should be.

At the end of each chapter, Maass includes exercises like picking any scene in your novel and identifying the outer and inner turning points. Or finding a piece of dialogue and stripping away all the attributives (he said/she said) to see if you can still identify who’s speaking based on the voice and action. He also provides tips throughout, such as going through your manuscript and honing the bookends of each chapter, so they are more compelling.

I think you can see how much I loved this book. I’ve read at least ten, but probably closer to 20, books on the craft of writing. I’ve read books on everything from plotting, grammar & style, and story structure, to books on tropes, the publishing industry, and formatting your manuscript. All this information can become repetitive and exhausting after a while. If you ever get to the point where you feel you’d rather listen to Dancing with the Stars soundtracks over and over again rather than read another book on writing, then you should read FONDLING YOUR MUSE by John Warner (of McSweeney’s) for a good laugh.

So, what if you’re just taking the first baby step on your writer’s journey? In that case, you may want to start with something that deals with the basics. After you get your copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, and it’s been dog-eared and highlighted into submission and you’ve been whipped into a style stupor, you might want to revive yourself with some literary smelling salts, such as STORY STRUCTURE ARCHITECT by Victoria Lynn Schmidt and THE PLOT THICKENS by Noah Lukeman. Then you can move on to ON WRITING by Stephen King and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

Then, when you’re finished with your first draft, you think you know everything there is to know about crafting a compelling story, and you’re ready to embark on the beastly journey of rewriting, you can read THE FIRE IN FICTION and, one of my personal favorites, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman.

Well, this blog post turned out to be about 17 times longer than I had anticipated. Off to dig into another rewrite.

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