Friday, September 28, 2012

Making Story

When I was a graduate student at New England Conservatory, lessons were delayed by a couple of weeks one year because the Boston Symphony Orchestra was on tour. A freshman was heard to complain, considering what it was costing him to go to college, he expected a full-time teacher. A soon-to-be-friend of mine replied, “You want to learn to play like a college teacher, study with a college teacher. You want to learn to play like a symphony orchestra musician, you study with one.”

That’s the problem with most “how to write” books. Few are written by anyone you’ve ever heard of, and the reasons you’ve never heard of these people are often legitimate. Books by writers who actually earn their livings writing fiction are rare, because these people are busy writing the books that feed their families. That’s why Timothy Hallinan’s latest effort, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot is such a welcome addition to the literature.

Hallinan’s authors have published over one hundred books among them, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. They tackled one of the most debated aspects of fiction—plotting—and described how each of them does it. Rarely, if ever, has such a broad spectrum of techniques been solicited.

And guess what? It’s a mess. No one does it exactly the same. Few do it even mostly the same. The thread that runs through the book is every author—and, often, every book by the same author—requires their own approach. What worked last time won’t work this time, no matter how hard you try to shoehorn your raw material into the old mold.

The only thing close to a consensus in Making Story comes from showing it’s not just okay to experiment, it’s practically mandatory. Where the real help comes is in seeing the different things all these successful authors have tried, and cherry-picking which might work for you on the next project, or when you’re stuck. You may also smile when you discover someone whose work you enjoy, maybe even admire, does something much the way you do.

Another bonus of getting a group of fiction writers to talk about writing is, their comments will not be dry. They write entertaining prose fpor a living. This is no textbook full of rules. The primary thing most will take away is, there are no rules when it comes to plotting.

Making Story is a quick and entertaining read you’ll want to keep around for future reference, so the next time you’re stuck, you can refer back to how one of your favorites gets past such obstacles.

(Here are the writers who participated: Michael Stanley, Kelli Stanley, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jeffrey Siger, Zoe Sharp, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Mike Orenduff, Debbi Mack, Wendy Hornsby, Gar Anthony Haywood, Timothy Hallinan, Leighton Gage, Jeremy Duns, Bill Crider, Meredith Cole, Jeffrey Cohen, Rebecca Cantrell, Rachel Brady, Lisa Brackmann, Cara Black, and Brett Battles.)

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