Fiction Writing

Book Review – Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Literary junkies like me appreciate iconoclastic works in the craft. How can any of us forget the first time we delved into Ulysses, Waiting for Godot or anything Claude Simon wrote? I found myself just as intrigued by a work on the craft just as innovative. Steven James wrote Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules as such a work.

Mr. James presented an oppositional take on several premises both writers and instructors accept as sacrosanct. Outlining a novel served as the main target of his criticism. The author takes a “seat-of-the pants” or a “pantser” approach to his own writing. He preferred the expression “organic writing” for this practice. He didn’t argue that outlining isn’t the best approach for him. He believed that it’s wrong for everybody. The author advised: “rather than outlining, focus on (1) narrative progression, (2) genre conventions and (3) reader expectations.” (Page 107)

The book contained suggestions that both outliners and pantsers would find useful. Mr. James even included a useful chart showing the issues both styles of writers would encounter. (Page 113) The author emphasized the importance of driving tension in one’s writing. (Pages 8 and 9) He kept returning to the idea of escalating that tension throughout an author’s work. Story Trumps Structure even introduced a new axiom to the principles of fiction writing: “the Ceiling Fan Principle.” (Page 7) Named after a story a fifth grader told the author, it meant that, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong.” (Page 7)

The author also objected to critique groups reviewing works-in-progress. He expressed several issues with the practice. For one, a reviewer may not be aware of all the narrative forces at work in the story. (Page 34) He added that, “any writing taken out of context will end up being critiqued poorly.” (Page 35) He summarized his disagreement with critiquing as such:

I can’t think of any other field in which people who aren’t experts critique other people who aren’t experts in the hope of everyone becoming an expert. (Page 35)

Overall, I found Story Trumps Structure full of solid advice for good fiction writing. I did have some issues with it. I disagreed with both the author’s advice and his pedantic tone on the subject of organic writing. I did extract value from his craft tips, however, so that issue didn’t dissuade me from finishing the book.

I’ve been a member of several critique groups over the years. I’ve neither considered anyone in any of them an “expert” nor did I ever hear a participant use that term. One must always keep in mind the knowledge and background of who reviews one’s work. I would add that any person reading a critique piece is a “reader.” It’s always possible or probable that other readers may have the same reaction when they encounter the same scene in an author’s story.

Mr. James undoubtedly presented a revolutionary take on organic writing. From his liberal use of clichés, I wondered if his next work would espouse their value. I write without hyperbole that Story Trumps Structure contained more clichés than I recall reading in a single book. They included the author’s use of expressions, “between a rock and a hard place” (page 229), “give it some breathing room” (page 89) and “in a nutshell” (page 87) just to cite a few. I thought Mr. James could’ve utilized more creative phrasing in a book about writing instruction.

Story Trumps Structure presented myriad suggestions on how to write fiction well. The addition of the unusual ideas made the book more memorable than most on the subject. Even though I didn’t share the author’s view on a number of them, he made me expand my frame of reference. Isn’t that what both great works of fiction and non-fiction are supposed to do?

Book Review – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Did you ever feel like giving up on your writing? Do you frequently ask yourself if it’s even worth the effort? Does staring at the blank page on your monitor inspire you to dive right into cleaning the refrigerator? If so, Ms. Lamott must’ve had you in mind when she penned Bird by Bird. While a good work of writing instruction, it’s a stronger book about motivation. What a great choice of subject. That’s something all we writers out there could use more of.

The author selected the title from a personal vignette. As her eloquence far exceeds my own, I’ll let her tell it.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Pages 18 – 19)

That blurb set the tone for the entire book. Ms. Lamott strived to convince authors they can complete any work; in spite of the myriad obstacles, some self-imposed, that will come one’s way.

The advice I liked the most concerned “perfectionism”. The author described it as an “oppressor.” (Page 28) She went on to call it a “mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.” (Page 32) She elaborated: “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts.” (Page 25)  I applaud Ms. Lamott’s encouraging writers to not let “mistakes” interfere with their love of the craft.

I also enjoyed her thoughts on publishing. The author used an unusual example to illustrate her point. She referred to the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in the movie Cool Runnings. He told his athletes, “If you’re not enough before the Gold Medal, you won’t be enough with it.” (Page 218) That’s an appropriate observation. I’m glad the author chose to include it. I always remember something someone told me, “Publishing is a tool for our writing. Our writing isn’t a tool to get published.” Some writers lose focus on that sometimes.

Ms. Lamott emphasized that writers should, in essence, write for writing’s sake. She quoted her students who said they write because, “I will not be silenced again.” (Page 196) While it’s important that artists have something to say with their work, the author cautioned that one must keep that within limits. She mentioned Samuel Goldwyn’s admonition: “If you have a message, send a telegram.” (Page 104)

Bird by Bird primarily served as an inspirational tome; its purpose being to motivate writers to write. The author still included some solid suggestions for those interested in the hard aspects of craft. She encouraged authors to focus on their characters more than plot. (Page 54) She explained that “good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is unsaid.” (Page 67) I appreciated how she clarified the difference between a “moral position” and a “message”. “A moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you.” (Page 108) Ms. Lamott rounded that out by including a quote from Molly Ivins. “Freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right.” (Page 109)

One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me came from my former manager, Ray Ziegler. In terms of how best to execute a plan he said, “Take away the excuses.” For procrastinating writers, Anne Lamott did just that in Bird by Bird.