Tag: Donald Maass

Genre as Training Ground

My book club’s choice for this month was a  book by an author I knew first as a romance writer. I looked forward to a gentle read. Wrong! The author had written what Donald Maass might call a “breakout” novel, the story that is deeper, more complex, bigger, and usually a better seller than the genre novel that preceded it. The book I just read achieved all of that.

Yet, I could still see the “genre” fingerprints in the work. There was The Writer’s Journey technique of a call to adventure, the refusal of the call and finally crossing the threshold that launched the protagonist into the story. Since there were two parallel stories, the author used this technique with both of them.

I could also detect Goal, Motivation, & Conflict on nearly every page. Each of the main characters was focussed on a goal of protecting family, motivated by love of family. Then the writer threw obstacle after obstacle in their way. Sometimes small goals were achieved and the story moved forward. Sometimes those goals were thwarted, leading to further complications. In one memorable scene the main goal appeared to be accomplished, only to turn to ashes. You can’t go home again, no matter how desperately you try.

True to her roots, the author included a romance, but it was a side bar, not the core of the novel. The book was not what I’d expected, but it was a good read and I’m sure our book club discussion will be lively.

Coming from my perspective as a romance writer, I found affirmation in this author’s journey from genre to mainstream. Nearly every writer dreams of writing the breakout novel, both for the financial reward and for the literary satisfaction. Based on this book, writing genre fiction is excellent training.

I’m always on the lookout for a breakout novel. Any suggestions?

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If You Could Visit. . .

As mentioned before, I follow the blog Writers Unboxed. Some time ago, in response to a post about discouragement, Donald Maas wrote what amounts to a love letter for writers.  I printed out parts of it for future inspiration. You can read the whole post here.

After the Christmas break, I’m getting back into my writing routine, but finding it hard to pick up the pieces of the story. I’ve re-read Mr. Maas’ post and found one of his suggestions really touched a chord in me. He asked about my story world. If I could visit, where would I go, who would I speak to, what would I eat, where would I lay a flower? Just reading those lines seemed to give me permission to turn “work” into “play.”

I know exactly where I’d go in Prospect. I’d visit the Rockingham Hotel and have tea with Emma North. I’d wander the boardwalks and drop in at The Mercantile. No doubt Bella Barclay will give me an earful about the latest goings on. I’d wander by Rev. Stanton’s church and spend a little time by the duck pond. Nothing like squabbling ducks to raise the spirits.

At the end of the day, I’d hire a horse and take the road through the woods to Pine Creek Farm. When I reached the house, I’d leave my horse and walk up the hill to the orchard. There I’d sit on Sean’s bench beneath the Sweetheart Tree and watch the sunset. I might feel a little melancholy remembering Lottie’s early life, but from my perch, I can see Bridget and her little brother playing tag on the verandah. Present joy replaces past sorrow. I’ll linger until I see Sean and Michael come in from the fields and know the family is sitting around the kitchen table, secure, happy and full of love.

Now that I’ve had my imaginary visit to Prospect, I’m eager to pick up my pen and continue the story. Thank you, Donald Maas for your insight and your compassionate words for writers.

How about you? Any story places you’d love to visit in person? Would you go back in time to Green Gables, perhaps, or are you a seeker who longs to float among the stars with Mary Robinette Kowal? What makes you want to visit a fictional place– the people? the landscape? the time period? Would you visit Prospect if you could? If you don’t know the gold rush town of Prospect, B.C. visit my books page and meet some of the characters.

 

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Beware the Passive Heroine

I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women.  One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time.  What was the difference?  Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?

The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”

Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.

Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling.  Off to edit!

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Power of Symbols

Two things happened yesterday that got me thinking  about the power of symbols.  The first was a package from home.  For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived.  It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box.  My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition.  When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.

The second thing  happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine.  A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me.  Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.

As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse.  Think of the enduring stories of the ages.  Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind.  For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship.  She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house.  Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death?  “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book.  The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road?  Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.”  He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it.  He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine.  Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.

In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change.  “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.”   I refer to yellow silk only three  times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric.  When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.

Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans.   Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder.  Your readers will thank you.

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