Part 10 (although the numbering is becoming ever more inaccurate due to going off at tangents. This one includes a mini-tangent) of an intermittent series where I read or re-read the writing books on my shelf to see if they’re worth keeping. See previous part here
As I hinted in the last blog I’ve been re-reading this book (it’s at least the third or fourth time I’ve read it.) The writing is idiosyncratic perhaps but Swain’s main ideas on ‘motivation reaction units,’ and Scene and Sequel really are the nuts and bolts you need as a writer. That makes this book an essential purchase. I’ve seen Swain’s ideas on e.g. Scene and Sequel pushed by many others, it really is foundational. There are issues – the later chapters are not as good as the first half as the book, and there is that idiosyncrasy – Swain is VERY fond of putting everything into lists for example. There’s also a distasteful racist joke at one point (Swain was a pulp writer writing in the 50’s – that doesn’t excuse it of course but does explain how it got through the editing process.) If you want to get the foundational skills buy this book.
If Swain puts fiction under a microscope Maass, in this book – Writing 21st Century Fiction, seems to be like searching for a diffuse signal with a radio telescope. Maass’s premise and set up for this book is that 21st Century Fiction is genre-blending and genre-transcending (as if no-one in the 19th and 20th centuries had ever thought of writing genre-defying books.) Specifically that 21st Century fiction is genre books written as literary fiction. He bases this premise on the types of books that have appeared on the NYT besteller lists (cherry picking the ones that fit the premise and ignoring those that don’t.) The book was published in 2012 – so it’s a little premature to define 100 years of fiction based on the first 12 years of the century I feel.
There is some good stuff in here but essentially he’s trying to talk to literary fiction writers and tell them what to take from genre to improve their books and, at the same time, talk to genre writers and tell them what to take from literary fiction. But essentially the core message is that literary fiction being character-led needs more plot and genre as plot-led needs more character. That’s not a new idea. It also makes massive generalisations about both styles of fiction and an assumption that the majority of books exist at either one end of the spectrum or the other – when of course the opposite is true, the majority of genre books have deep character development and the majority of litfic books have a plot.
The end of chapter tips on how to improve your prose are of the style of -“Make your writing better by being a better writer” – seriously. As an example: “What’s a moment in your story that sparkles in your mind? Spend an hour with it. Polish. Buff. Shine.” Er, OK, How do you polish? How do you buff? How do you shine?
I remembered this book being a lot better than it turned out to be…
I bought this after reading and enjoying another Maass book (The Emotional Craft of Fiction) which I’ll be reading next.
One for the discard pile.
The slight tangent here is away from the How to Fiction books and into a How to be a writer book, of the specific sub-type – how to hack your process to be a more prolific writer. There is a lot of good stuff in here but the core of the ‘system’ is basically to buy a filing cabinet and lots of manila folders and it all seems a little too analogue. I mean there are lots of tips on how to effectively use calendars, task management software, Email, and writing software and some interesting things to say about writing while travelling but the great idea, much trumpeted throughout the book, to “take a weekend off to get organised” is basically ‘file your paperwork.’ If, like me, the vast majority of your ‘paperwork’ is online – it’s not a very useful system. Still I did pick up a few tips I’d not seen elsewhere so reading the book was useful. But not a keeper.
My search for a good book on how to write Interactive Fiction continues. I’ve been given the opportunity to pitch an IF book to a publisher (another secret project) and I feel that the only way to learn how to do it is to read a lot of IF and retro-engineer. This ‘book’ is 80 pages long and about a third of those pages are one paragraph and lots of white space. Another third is quoted material from the author’s IF books and out of the rest I maybe found one or two tips. Don’t be conned into buying this book.