With some trepidation, I took advantage of a recent Writer’s Digest sale. I bought Donald Maass’s The Breakout Novelist. For those of you who don’t know, he’s a top literary agent who also teaches serious workshops on how to write novels that will leave readers wanting more.
I have very few books like this on my reference shelf.
Aha, so that’s why she hasn’t written anything worth publishing yet. She hasn’t studied the craft seriously enough.
That may be partly true. But where other writers devour every such book upon publication, I approach them far more reluctantly. Why? Because where others find inspiration, I sometimes find my nemesis, Self-Doubt.
Self-Doubt twists the meanings of words in these books. For example, Maass, like many others, describes the heroic qualities needed by a protagonist, the need for non-stop tension in the story, and the importance of continually raising the stakes for the hero. But Self-Doubt leads me to take these terms far too literally. Heroes? I see Odysseus or Jack Ryan. Tension? War or its potential. Raised Stakes? The Sackville-Baggins are nothing, dear Frodo, compared to barrow wights, Black Riders, Gollum, and Sauron.
And so some days I wonder, “How can a story about Meghan Bode, archaeologist, meet these requirements?”
She’s too literal in her thinking. How can she create a captivating story?
Objectively, I know I’m being far too left-brained when this happens. At those times when I beat down Self-Doubt, I see glimpses of how these terms and concepts apply to “regular” characters and their lives. I understand they apply to humor and romance and other genres that aren’t epics or thrillers.
Hey, you know what? Let’s just hang on a minute and rethink this post. Because there are also some days when I wonder just why these “how to” experts DON”T use humor, romance, or science fiction for their examples.
Reference books like these don’t sugar coat the difficulty of writing a good story. And that’s as it should be. Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird are gentler introductions. They’re good first books to read when the Muse strikes with a story we’re compelled to set down. But I suspect most of us need these tougher books, especially if we didn’t take creative writing courses in college, if we’re going to craft a good story.
But good writing is good writing, right? So why don’t these reference writers illustrate more of their points with successful humorous books or cozy mysteries or other genres? Sure, they’ll cite a few examples, but then they’re back to mega bestsellers of the thriller and literary varieties. It makes sense. After all, terms like “hero” and “tension” and “conflict” are easily applied in those genres. They’re “easy” illustrations of the points being made by the writing gurus. But why not also use examples with a character like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or a book like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
I may be speaking heresy here, but just maybe it’s not so easy to explain heroic qualities when you’re talking about Arthur Dent. Maybe it’s not so easy to describe heightened tension when the super-intelligent beings who confront Dent are white mice. How can you illustrate “character growth” with someone like Miss Marple who really doesn’t change?
I’m sure someone could do it. But it would be difficult. And maybe they want to leave the hard stuff for the folks writing the novels. Just a thought.
I’m not saying these reference books are bad—they’re excellent. I’m not saying I could write a better one—I couldn’t. But I just might buy more of them if they paid more than lip service to most genres in their examples….
I hope you’ll tune in this Saturday for a Sit Down post with Lyndsey Jones, aka “Woman Bites Dog,” when we’ll talk about her play, Martini Bond, about a woman’s search for her legendary father.