Writing Instruction

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 – Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder

Screenwriter Blake Snyder opted to take his writing skills to the next level. After successfully crafting and selling 13 screen plays to various Hollywood producers, including Steven Spielberg, he decided to take on the most challenging writing assignment imaginable. Mr. Snyder opted to pen a “how-to” manual for aspiring screenwriters. Those of us fortunate enough to have read Save the Cat! are glad he did. It provided outsiders like me with some key insights as to what A-list entertainment industry producers look for in scripts.

The author came up with a host of neologisms for common screenwriting concepts. By his reckoning the most controversial inspired the book’s title. The expression “save the cat” referred to: “…the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” (Page xv) However, “save the cat” applies to “bad” characters, too. The author went on to explain:

The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (Page 121)

I liked the way the author incorporated the unlikely pair of Samuel L. Jackson’s and John Travolta’s characters from Pulp Fiction to illustrate this concept’s universality. Quentin Tarantino found clever ways to get the audience to “like”, or at least, root for their characters in spite of their working as hit men. One such method entailed making their “boss” a worse bad guy than they were. (Page 122)

Of all the tips Mr. Snyder revealed in the book, writing for archetypes impressed me the most. He pointed out that it’s a bad idea to create characters with particular actors in mind. Instead, he suggested thinking about it this way:

…You find throughout cinema history that many of the big stars play one part really well. Think about Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. Now think about Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. It’s not because these are not good actors who can’t do more than one type of role, only that what makes movies work to a large degree is our need to be shown certain archetypes onscreen.

And the actors who play these archetypes now are just taking the place of actors who played the same archetypes years ago.

Isn’t Russell Crowe Errol Flynn? (Even geographically?)

Isn’t Jim Carrey Jerry Lewis?

Isn’t Tom Hanks Jimmy Stewart?

Isn’t Sandra Bullock Rosalind Russell? (Page 58)

Mr. Snyder included a variety of trenchant thoughts on characterization that would apply to any type of writing. I took away the key concept of how the hero always knows: (s)he never asks. (Page 146) The author added the best way to reveal a character’s essence is through actions, not what (s)he says. (Page 148) I’m thankful to the author for raising the point that often times the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are two sides of the same character. (Page 149).

I always encounter jargon when I read books about craft. Since the author targeted this book to those interested in writing for Hollywood, he included a good deal specific to that market. Fortunately for those of us outside of Tinseltown he added a glossary at the end. This helped me follow unfamiliar concepts such as loglines, promise of the premise and whiff of death. He also defined story ARC which I, embarrassingly, should have already known.

Save the Cat! works as a great primer on screenwriting. It also includes helpful tips that writers of any type of fiction could utilize. I’d suggest those interested make the time to read it now. Don’t wait for the movie.

Book Review – No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

A lot of people would say you’re batty if you think you can write a novel in one month. It turns out the person who started the whole National Novel Writing Month craze was, certifiably, batty. In fact, his name’s Chris Baty. After founding NaNoWriMo (as we writers like to call it) in 1999 and participating in it multiple times, he went on to write a book about the experience. No Plot? No Problem! detailed the author’s “lessons learned” and “best practices” he discovered during his month long journeys.

For those unfamiliar with the concept Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth) takes place every November. Writers from all over the world challenge themselves to craft the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. It interested me to discover that Baty and his circle conducted the first one in July. They switched to November to take advantage of the three day weekend for those of us in the USA. Also, the bad weather made the year’s penultimate month more conducive to writing.

The author presented many useful tips for accepting the month long challenge. I’ve found that many of them apply to “normal” writing occasions, too. The most valuable tool for a writer is a deadline. (Page 32) Busyness is an asset that helps writers stay focused on their work. (Page 21) That’s a good point. I’ve discovered in my own life that the more I have to do, the more I tend to get done. The same concept applies towards writing goals.

I liked how Mr. Baty  emphasized that “no one ever writes a brilliant first draft…Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go around.” (Page 36) He called a first draft “exuberant imperfection”. He defined the concept in an unusual way: “the quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horrible and crappy.” (Page 37) Why? He explained, “Inspiration and insight, I’ve learned, flow more freely from failures than they do from successes.” (Page 174)

In addition to solid writing advice, the author provided non-craft tips for completing NaNoWriMo. He mentioned the need to get friends and family on-board for one’s November challenge. This helps minimize unneeded distractions. One father had an unique take on how to parent while writing 1,667 words a day. He called November, “National-Going-to-Bed-Early Month.” (Page 73)

The author intended the book to guide writers through the emotional caprices of NaNoRiMo. I thought the inclusion of quotations from people who’ve successfully finished the month long challenge a great idea. It showed that the ideas expressed in the book weren’t exclusively the author’s. He provided comments from people who’ve completed the 50,000 word challenge once, to those who’ve done so up to 12 times. It surprised me that so many people have completed NaNoWriMo during multiple years.

As if all that isn’t enough an incentive to motivate writers, Mr. Baty provided commentary from several authors who’ve gone on to publish novels they wrote during NaNoRiMo. Gayle Brandeis and Rachael Herron each published three. Marissa Meyer published four. As if that didn’t get the attention of his readers, Elizabeth Haynes published five.

I mentioned that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. I’m not sure how many revisions went into No Plot? No Problem!, but I did find a few mistakes in it.  Throughout the book, the author included gray boxes separate from the narrative. They included additional material regarding the topics discussed in the text. The one entitled “How Long Does a Rewrite Usually Take?” appeared twice in the version I read. I found it on pages 180 and 175. The most obvious error occurred in the phrase “Jimi Hendrix writhing over his flaming Telecaster.” (Page 146) A Fender Stratocaster served as Jimi’s guitar of choice.

Statistically only 17% of people who begin NaNoWriMo finish. (Page 36) With this excellent reference source available, it will be interesting to discover if that number increases. That’s not really the point, though. The author emphasized that writing for its own sake has surprising awards. “The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously.” (Page 23) I’d suggest all aspiring novelists give that some thought as November approaches.


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.