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.”

The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story


First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

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In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

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