The Fire in Fiction

Fire in Fiction coverIt’s HERE! Came on Monday, actually. I ordered this book when I first heard about it from Writer’s Digest, but when Jessica Dotta published an interview over at Novel Journey with agent guru and expert writing instructor, Donald Maass, I was more excited than ever to get his newest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, purpose, and techniques to make your novel great.

I know some people think there is a problem with that subtitle. I mean, come on, they say, techniques to make your novel great? As if you can create a masterpiece by using a paint-by-the-numbers kit.

Well, that’s the beauty of Mr. Maass’s books, at least the other two I’m familiar with—Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He is not trying to give a formula but an analysis. He’s looking at what has made other novels “breakout” or have an impact (his working definition of “great”).

The point is, he identifies what elements great novels have, gives some practice tools, and lets writers go from there.

Nick Harrison:Jim Bell debateThis instruction book is light on “rules.” From a glance at the table of contents, I can tell you shouldn’t expect a discussion on point of view or verb tense or passive voice. If I were to categorize the main emphasis, I’d say it’s on characters.

This would make Nick Harrison very happy, while Jim Bell will be grinding his teeth. 😀 This picture was taken during a 2008 Mount Hermon workshop in which Nick and Jim “debated” the importance of character over story. According to Nick, no one cares about all the fast-action events in a story unless they first care about a character.

According to Jim Bell, no one can know a character unless they see them in action in the midst of a story.

Truth to both, clearly, but Mr. Maass spends the first fifty pages of his writing instruction about characters, so I think that provides us with a clue as to his position on the question.

Since I read to find out what happened next, I never thought I would agree with this character first approach. But I’ve read too many stories of late in which I just didn’t care … until I got to know what drove the character forward. Then, if I’m engaged with the character, I’m engaged in the story.

I read one book some years ago in which the character I followed for four hundred or so pages dies in the end. I have not picked up another book by that author since. I invested in that character and had no clue he would die. And I had no other rooting interest. I didn’t want to just have it all stop.

I’ve read other books that start with bad guys or with guys who die. I hate those books. I don’t want to attach to a bad guy. I don’t want to root for someone who’s out of the story after page twenty.

Characters matter, and they have to be done right. I’m convinced of that, but I’m still not sure if I understand how to do “right.”

7 Comments

  1. Becky, I too am looking forward to this book! Donald Maas seems to be one of the good guys, one of those agents who loves books, and seeks a good story above all else in his books. I have high respect for that in these difficult days. : )

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  2. I agree, Alex, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. There are gems throughout. One thing he’s already got me thinking about, and I’m only into the second chapter, is how my characters affect each other. He said, and I never thought about it before, that no two people will respond in exactly the same way to a character. Well, that’s my paraphrase, but you get the idea. And it makes sense because certainly in real life people respond differently to individuals. I want to take a good look at my characters with that thought in mind.

    Becky

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  3. “I had no other rooting interest”

    I had to think quickly when I read this, but I think you meant barracking. You should be careful writing in a global context. You may get read by Australians.

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  4. I think, Becky, the only way to truly write those characters people can care about is to write the ones with those qualities, quirks, and/or drives which matter to you. Then at least you will have like-minded people involved. I think it ties in to knowing your audience and who you desire to be as a writer and somewhat as a person. Individuals you might find slightly annoying in real life are someone else’s heroes/heroines, etc. You get my drift. If you aren’t thoroughly involved in your characters’ lives either positively and passionately for better or worse, or negatively and hatefully for the antagonists–however you choose to present them, then no one else will be involved either.

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  5. No, Ken, I didn’t mean “barracking,” at least if my dictionary defines the Australian meaning correctly. I had to look it up, because I am unfamiliar with the word used as a verb.

    I had no idea that “rooting” was not a term universally understood by English speakers. I actually meant the opposite of jeer[ing] loudly at (someone performing or speaking in public) in order to express disapproval or to create a distraction. To root for someone means to support or hope for the success of (a person or group entering a contest or undertaking a challenge).

    I suppose these sorts of differences are just things we’ll have to live with.

    Becky

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  6. […] Miller tackled the subject in a recent review of Donald Maass’ new book, and she seems to tilt toward […]

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  7. “I had no idea that “rooting” was not a term universally understood by English speakers.”

    It’s a distinctly American expression, and for good reason. I recommend the Encarta dictionary if you have access to one. It is alert to all sorts of differences between the Englishes. Barracking does seem to be an Australian originated term. It is about noisy and enthusiastic support. Your definition is a secondary one. I don’t know where you picked it up or who uses it. In Australia to barrack for your sporting team is entirely a supportive thing. Many Australians were puzzled that during the recent US election campaign supporters of yo r current president didn’t have bumper stickers reading “I’m barracking for Obama”. That makes perfect sense in Australian English. A sticker saying “I’m rooting for Obama” would have been more unfortunate.

    Clearly I’m sidestepping telling you straight out what you have said. There’s a particularly tricky class of words which are perfectly fine in one English but have coarser references in another English. Some years ago Jan was running late for a class of high school students. She had trouble negotiating the renovations in the stairwell. She said to her class, “I just bonked my head on the stairs”. They fell about laughing. They went immediately for the British English vernacular interpretation.

    “I had no other rooting interest”

    I’ve been trying to think of an equivalent American English expression here. Imagine you were a carpenter and said in a talk, “I had no other screwing interest”. Could you imagine that this sentence had another possible interpretation? Well, that’s what you said.

    But don’t worry, Becky, I know you’re Not That Kind of Girl.

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