Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Donald Maass is brilliant. (Perhaps this is what happens when people use only three letters to make a five letter name?!) He's the author of the must-read Writing the Breakthrough Novel and Workbook, both of which I found enormously helpful. The Fire in Fiction was published in 2009, but just like the previous book, it shows Maass to be incredibly widely read and to be an astute critic of what he reads.

The first topic of the month could be titled "What kind of writer are you?" No, I don't mean "do you write sci-fi or mysteries or full-blooded bodice-ripping romances?" The question, as Maass poses it, is "are you a status seeker or a storyteller?"

I'll let Maass tell it his way:
For thirty years I have observed fiction careers. I've seen them succeed and fail. The more I see, the more I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers."
He makes the following comparisons between the two:

On Breaking In:
The majority of writers seek representation or publication years too soon. Rejection slips quickly set them straight. How do they respond? Some cleave to the timeless advice get it in the mail, keep it in the mail. The more thoughtful pull their manuscripts and go back to work.
At Writing the Breakout Novel workshops:
A more concerned with making his story the best story it can be, with discovering the levels and elements that are missing, and with understanding the techniques needed to make it all happen. Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop. Storytellers won't show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts.
Maass contends that things get worse for the status seekers once they've landed an agent. They are anxious for validation, so they make constant inquiries about submissions. Once under contract with an editor, they focus on what they are getting (or not getting) by way of cover, copy, blurbs, or promotion. As for storytellers, they "have a more realistic grasp of retail realities. They may promote, but locally and not for long. They'll put up a website, maybe, then it's back to work on the next book..."

In mid-career, according to Maass, status-seekers "go full time too soon." They rely on advances, the size of which becomes critical. Maass has them crying out, "I am working too hard to keep getting paid fifteen thousand per book!" All the while, storytellers are working on delivering yet more powerful stories for their readers. (It sounds like something out of Aesop's fables!)

In advanced stages of their careers, status seekers "grumble about publishers...change agents, obsess over trunk projects, write screenplays." Storytellers, meanwhile, "look not to publishers to make them successful, but to themselves...Their grumbles are not about getting toured but about getting more time to deliver. Storytellers take calculated risks with their fiction. Mostly they try to make their stories bigger."

I admit that, when I read this, the angel and the demon on my shoulder got into a spat. One of them (I'm never sure which is which) roundly declared I was a storyteller. The other harrumphed with a "get real! You're just as much a status seeker as the rest of them." Most writers, if honest, probably have a bit of both. And it's probably easier for the unpublished writer to get sucked into status seeker mode, because "the clock is ticking, gentlemen!!!"

It is salutary, then, to view all this through Maass' long-time agent's eyes: storytellers may start slow and spend more time on trying to perfect their craft, but they are winners in the long run. And the long run is where we writers want to be, isn't it?

So, for now, I'm shelving those dreams of cruising the Caribbean by yacht, installing the home champagne fountain, and ordering the Bentley. It's back to work on those stories, status be damned!

Next week: Scenes That Can't be Cut

1 comment:

  1. I like that angel/demon image! I imagine you're exactly right, that most of aren't purely one or the other; surely there are a lot of status-seeking storytellers and storytelling status-seekers among us?

    Maass is amazing -- what a difference his Workbook made for me. Hopefully we'll be storytelling on a Bentley in the Caribbean *someday* LOL


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