Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Where's the Fire in the Fire?

Some days ago, Richard Mabry blogged about Donald Maass' book The Fire In Fiction: Passion, Purpose, And Technique To Make Your Novel Great. I went to Amazon.com and read a portion of the book, saw a few things that made me think I would be interested in reading it and clicked the buy button. It arrived a couple of days later and I put it next to the computer, thinking I would read it later. I currently have bookmarks in two novels, The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher and Inkdeath. Donald Maass’ book kept calling to me. My left hand kept reaching over to pick it up and I kept scolding it, until it refused to obey. I found myself reading the book.

As Richard said, Donald Maass has some good things to say in the introduction. I read that and moved on to Chapter One: Protagonists vs. Heroes. He also had some good things to say there. Even though I have written about how I hate block quotes, I forced myself to read the examples he lifted from various novels. I tried to understand what he was trying to say about what the author had written.

I don’t recall if it was in that first chapter. It was probably later, but at some point I began to think, I’ve seen this stuff before. Much of what Donald Maass wrote in his book is stuff that we’ve seen in other places and I don’t just mean the block quotes. But that’s part of what books do. They remind us of things that we already know and they may say something a different way, leading us to an understanding that we didn’t have before. So, I pressed on.

But, by the end of the second chapter, I was growing tired of reading block quotes. I began skimming them, then reading what Donald Maass had to say. He said some things I agree with and some I do not. But then I got to the point that it was all I could do to press on. I began to skim what he had said about the lengthy block quotes, which at times contain hundreds of words. Then I began to flip through the pages, never reading a word and then I closed the book. I didn’t even make it halfway through the book and I have no desire to read more.

Don’t take this as a review. Your experience with this book could be better than mine. If you’ve never read another book on writing, there is much you can learn from this book. I think my problem with the book is that I have read other books by better writers who present the subject matter in a much more approachable way. Donald Maass’ book gave me the sense that he was telling us what his favorite authors have done, but he never got to the point of telling us how to accomplish the same thing in our own writing. At times, I began to think, Yeah, I know I should do that, but my difficulty is that I don’t always do what I know I should do. How do we fix that problem. But Donald Maass is more of an agent, than a writer and he doesn’t know. This is evidenced by his book. He tells us within his own book that we should use micro-tension to hold the reader, and yet, he has failed to hold my attention. He tells us many things about how to craft a story, and yet he has borrowed so much content from other writers that I lost track of the story. But, as I said, you may have a better experience than I.

What can we take from this? I have something of a user interface background. One of the concepts is that if a user struggles with getting a piece of software to work, it’s the software that needs to be fixed, not the user. Like Donald Maass, we may have some great things to say in our books, but if the reader can’t stick with the book, the book is broken, not the reader.

Are You Aspiring or Only a Wannabe?


to seek to attain a goal


somebody who tries to be like someone else or to belong to a specific group (informal

[source: Encarta Dictionary]

Wannabe is often a derogatory term. “Is he any good?” someone will ask. “No, he’s just a wannabe,” we might respond. Notice the definitions above. A wannabe has the goal of being like someone else while to aspire allows for any kind of goal. In the context that it is often used, a wannabe is someone putting on the appearance of being something, but is not.

One of the marks of a wannabe-author is that he gets his feelings hurt when someone implies that his writing isn’t that great. Why? Because his only goal is to be an author and he is willing to take shortcuts to get there. He is something of a copycat. He mimics authors. When his manuscript has all the elements that he enjoys about the books written by a favored author, he submits his work and is shocked when someone doesn’t agree it is great.

The aspiring author isn’t looking for the same validation that the wannabe author is. No one must tell the aspiring author when she is good enough to call herself an author. Maybe other people don’t think her writing is all that great, but that’s okay because she has already set a goal to improve. At worst, the criticism of someone else is just an indication that her more distant goals are farther away than she hoped. She doesn’t want to write like another author, though she is a student of the work of others. The aspiring author doesn’t expect to reach the point where she has arrived, but sees successes as only milestones with the road stretching out in front of her. The wannabe author is looking for recognition. The aspiring author is looking for progress. Which are you?