Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Writing "Awe-Inspiring" Fiction

For all you writer-types, there's a very good article by Donald Maas on writing awe-inspiring fiction up at Writer Unboxed. He gives some excellent advice on how to craft characters readers care about, characters that MATTER. It's given me a lot to think about as I trudge through this second manuscript. Go check it out and let me know what you think. Let's get a discussion going!


lucyp said...

Thanks for pointing us to this.

I liked what Maas said about awe-inspiring and transcendent fiction. Two works that filled that bill for me were The Thirteenth Tale and The Shadow of the Wind. They gave me an almost physical sense of transport. I wish I could figure out why.

I was disappointed by his four questions however. I do not think they are at all the key to the kind of transcendence I am thinking of. They seem very vague, abstract, and narrowly early 21st century ways of thinking about meaning. I was reminded that Maas is a professional reader, not a professional writer.

I would love to hear different views on this however. As Julianne says, discuss!

jdcoughlin said...

First off, don't care for Shadow of the Wind. And I so know I am in the minority as my book club read it a few months ago and I was practically booed right on out the door.

As for his questions, they are a great place to start. He is a professional reader. He is looking for a formula. However, I would have to say, there ain't one.

Sarah said...

I agree that there's no surefire formula but the exercises are great when you're stuck, and it's excellent to get advice from a reader and not a writer.

This is a goldmine, Julianne!

Julianne Douglas said...

[Sorry for the delay in responding. I ask for comments, then disappear! Sometimes real life gets in the way.]

Lucy-Here's my take on your disappointment with Maas's questions. If I read your comment correctly, you sense a discrepancy between the notion of transcendence as Maas defines it (forcing the reader to view the world in a different way) and the questions he encourages authors to ask about their characters. I don't think the discrepancy is as great as it might seem. The questions, as I interpret them, do to the character on the narrative level exactly what Maas wants the fiction to do to the reader on a meta-level: force him out of himself and into a new mode of viewing the world.

Here's my take on the motive behind each question:

1) People get angry when they come up against viewpoints/beliefs/practices that contradict their own. By anticipating this anger in the story, the character is forced to confront an opposing viewpoint and view the world from a different perspective, at least temporarily.

2) needs no explanation--the character accepting the opposite of what he believes in is the very definition of viewing the world in a different way.

3) In noticing things about other people that no one else does, the character again, for a time, identifies with the other character and views the world from that different perspective.

4) When a character grasps his importance to another character, he sees himself and his purpose from beyond his normal self-centered perspective, from the outside as it were. Again, a fundamental viewpoint shift.

Maas says elsewhere in the article that pulling the reader into alternate ways of looking at things can only be accomplished through characters, with whom the reader must bond. If the reader bonds with the character who himself is pulled into new ways of viewing the world, the reader necessarily experiences a similar shift. So Maas's questions, which on a first read might seem kind of arbitrary, do in fact facilitate the very shift he claims defines the notion of transcendent fiction.

Did that jumbled explanation make any sense? I'm thinking out loud here, but that's the unifying thread I see in the four questions.

However, if your definition of transcendence differs from his, incorporating these suggestions into your story might not help you achieve it at all. Can you share any more about what transcendence means to you?

Julianne Douglas said...

jdcoughlin--Thanks for taking the time to comment. Unfortunately, I haven't read Shadow, although from the comments here it sounds like it evokes powerful responses from its readers.

I wouldn't look at Maas's questions as the articulation of a formula so much as a way to nourish and expand the fictional world. It goes without saying that 3 scenes of anger + one scene of challenged convictions + 3 perspicacious observations + one vital realization does NOT automatically equal one transcendent novel. However, contemplating these issues and incorporating some of them into story might be the way to forge a stronger link between character and reader and draw the reader deeper into a new and unfamiliar place.

Julianne Douglas said...

Sarah--I know he's given me a lot to think about! I think the questions are a great way to incorporate change and growth in a character. Sometimes I worry my characters are too set in their ways, too wedded to their specific world view from the very outset of the book. I look forward to contemplating some of these questions and opening the characters up, making them a bit uncomfortable and thus encouraging them to grow.

I think my favorite line from the article is that writing an awe-inspiring novel demands "the commitment to craft every piece of a novel's thousands of components with high artistry." It's so easy concentrate one's energies on one character or theme or image at the expense of the others. Awe-inspiring fiction must pay attention to every detail and attack every facet of the novel with equal gusto. "Good enough" will never inspire awe in anyone, least of all the author, whom I think needs to be just as amazed at what she's creating as the reader is upon reading it.

So those inadequacies we feel as writers might just be a good thing, in that they stretch us beyond our limits and move us from "good enough" to "out of our world." ;)

Catherine Delors said...

"3 scenes of anger + 1 scene of challenged convictions + 3 perspicacious observations + 1 vital realization." Formulaic, but it works when you look at most great novels. In Pride & Prejudice, for instance, that's about the mix.

Also it depends on the genre. For a mystery/thriller, only 3 perspicacious observations makes the protagonist appear a bit dense.
Look at Conspiracy of Paper. Slow-witted detective (ex-boxer, though, so he gets a free pass because of all the blows to the head.) Conspiracy didn't work for me, but it did for lots of readers...

emily said...

Thanks for pointing me to this article, Julianne. It was very informative. Actually, the Times research was encouraging. For me, the gist of the observation about emailing awe-inspiring articles is that people always want that connection to the transcendent--in other words, to God.

But how to get a given reader connected is the tricky part. All readers come with their preconceived ideas about what the transcendent is supposed to look and feel like. And by its nature, Religion brings out strong partisanship.

Before you tread on a readers mental toes, they will have to be very firmly connected to your story. And it's impossible to do what Donald Maass suggests without annoying at least half of a broad audience.

So to me, the first thing I ask myself is WHO the intended audience is, and WHY they would bother with my story instead of the ten billion other stories out there, some tested by millions of readers and perhaps centuries of wear.

Then I try to figure out what will rock their world and put my characters in places where those emotions are possible.

Julianne Douglas said...

Catherine--Interesting observation about Austen. I ashamed to say I don't know her work well enough to comment on your comment.

Emily--It is quite humbling to contemplate why someone might read one's story when there are so many hundreds of other choices. Always good to know and try to appeal to your target audience. But what about the atypical reader who picks up your book on a whim? How to appeal to her without "stepping on her mental toes" and encourage her to keep reading so that she might view the world from a different perspective?