Monday, April 23, 2012

The Lie That Tells a Truth part 2

Sorry for the delay in the second part of my book review of The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.

We left off with understanding the purpose of a first draft.  It's to not be perfect.  It's to get the words out there and see where the story takes you.  Now we're on to the Revision stage.  The author states that "All writing is rewriting."  He also gives two pieces of advice:

1.  Finish the story.
2.  Don't expect to finish it today, or in this draft, or anytime in the near future.

You see what you wrote, not what you thought you wrote.  This is the time to ask the right questions.  The question of the characters motives, the showing not telling, the word choices.  Page 85 of this book gives a whole list of questions that I thought were very helpful.  Check this book out.


I love the way Mr. Dufresne describes plot:  "Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at her, throw bigger rocks at her, then get her down."  He actually gives credit for this saying to an unknown source but it's just such a great visual.  And it's certainly where I struggle.  When you determine which rocks to throw at your character you need to determine if it serves the plot, advances the story, or will it actually hinder the story, change how the reader feels?  Throw the right rocks.

Plot is the structure of events in a story.  It's is not a chronology.  "It's an arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect."  One of the points of this book is that the author takes the time to visualize not only his characters, but their actions.  It's as though he was in the room with the characters and he's just documenting what he sees, feels, hears.  What's on the wall of the character's room?  What does the character do when the wind comes through the window?  Really understand the character and the environment and then write.

John Dufresne starts the chapter entitled "Plottery" with a great couple of lines.  "An idea is not a story.  A first draft is not a story.  A moral is not a story.  A character is not a story.  A theme is not a story.  A plot - now, that's a story!"  He goes on to say that plots don't exist.  You can't just go get one.  You have to develop one through your writing.  He calls plot, "the organizing principle of narration."


The author calls for tenderness for all the characters.  You must treat them like children, with love and forgiveness.  But characters can't get away with lying, exaggerating, and not being responsible.  You have to know your characters inside and out.  Even though they are fiction they have a past.  They were all kids at one time, with parents, with joys and heartbreaks.  It's what defines them.  Take the time to know your characters.

Characters should surprise us.  If they don't, they are probably flat, dimensionless, with no depth.  The best way to get characters to feel real is to animate them.  Get them walking and behaving and let the reader watch them.  (This is why I have trouble reading like a writer, I always get sucked into the character!)


I love this line, "Dialogue is not a break in the action, it's an intensification of action."  There is a whole section on dialogue in the book.  How to do it well, what to avoid, etc.  I won't do it justice by piece-mealing portions into this blog, so you'll want to scope out pages 198-209.

Point of View

When trying to decide which point of view to take consider which character is in the most trouble?  Who has the most to lose?  The one with the biggest risk is the choice you should take. 

First person is unambiguous and it's easy to tell if you violate point of view. 

Second person - the you is a character in the story.  John Dufresne gives the example, "There are moments in your life when you think you can change absolutely everything....".  The author believes that this POV works best in short pieces.

Third person narrators are not characters in the story but they aren't real either.  They are invented.  It's not the author talking and it's not the characters either.  It's someone who tells the story but remains outside of the story.

Third person objective is sometimes known as fly on the wall.  It's reporting what a fly would see but you never enter into the minds of the characters.  It's a distant way of telling the story, impersonal.

Third person omniscient - this is pretty much the opposite of third person objective.  This person knows it all, what every character is thinking, etc.

Reading to Write

You never become an expert writer.  There is always more to know.  Mr. Dufresne gives good advice about reading like a writer.  The first time you read a book, read for pleasure.  Now reread the story and notice how the author reached the destinations.  What choices did he make, why?  How did he do the transitions, the movement of the characters. 

One of the final gifts the author provides is a list of items in A Writer's Toolbox.  It's a grouping of items that a writer would find helpful as they go through the journey of writing their story.

I would like to give my thanks to the author John Dufresne for his work that has been such an education for me.  I believe this book is a great reference for the aspiring writer.  His ability to easily communicate and share his viewpoint has been very helpful to me.  I hope you check out this book and get as much from it as I do.  I certainly could not do it justice in just two blog posts.

Thanks for Reading!! 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Lie That Tells a Truth, part 1

The other day I was browsing through the writing section in my local library and I pulled a couple of books down from the shelf.  I wrote about the Secret Miracle in my last post.  This post I’d like to share some information I gleaned from The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.  In fact, it’s going to take more than one post to share his words of wisdom to the aspiring writer.

The Lie That Tells a Truth was written in 2003.  You might question its relevance for today’s writer but I found it to be very educational and well written.  For many of you this material may be well known and part of your extensive experience.  But for me, it really hit home.  I’d heard some of it before, of course, but the way it was written just resonated with me.  And I want to share some of it with you.

Writer’s Block

The first thing Mr. Dufresne shares with us are that if we didn’t write today it’s because we didn’t want to, didn’t have the perseverance or the courage.  One of those three, or maybe more.   Lacked the will or the passion.  He questions whether we really enjoy it enough because we always find time to do the things we love.  His opinion is that writers don’t suffer from writer’s block.  It’s an excuse to get out of dealing with a problem in your story that you can’t solve.  He mentions that secretaries don’t get secretary block.  (Come on, it’s funny).  His point is, work through it.

Asking the right questions

Another point that John Dufresne makes in his book is that fiction isn’t the quadratic equation; we’re not solving a problem.  His stance is that we’re creating problems.  And the answers we get for solving these problems we create is based on the questions we ask.  Logic isn’t required, let loose and trust your feelings, intuition, etc.  Logic comes later, after the story has been created.  You use the logic to see if your story makes sense, but after you create it.

The 10 Commandments of writing

Now, I don’t know where he got these.  I assume that he’s not the originator but here’s what he shared as the 10 commandments of writing:

1.        Sit your Ass in the Chair.

2.       Thou shalt not bore the reader.

3.       Remember to keep holy your writing time.

4.       Honor the lives of your characters.

5.       Thou shalt not be obscure.

6.       Thou shalt show and not tell.

7.       Thou shalt steal.

8.       Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again.  And again.

9.       Thou shalt confront the human condition.

10.   Be sure that every death in a story means something.

Writing stories

I love these next few lines in the book, so I am copying them verbatim (all credit to the author John Dufresne).  Hopefully, all of you skilled English majors who recognize that I have no idea how to properly credit a source are satisfied that it’s obvious that I’m not taking credit for this post and are giving me a break.

“Stories and novels don’t get written.  They get rewritten.  All matters of consequence in fiction are addressed in revisions.”

I knew this right?  I mean, every author says his or her first draft was crap.  But you don’t really want to believe that YOUR first draft will be crap.  His point is that the first draft is for free-flowing creativity and that the hard work comes in the revisions.  Dufresne’s commentary about the ‘author’ is that he makes mistakes and expects his first draft not to be crap.  He undermines his effort by holding unrealistic expectations of himself.  (This is where I really begin to relate).  The author becomes discouraged when the characters on the page don’t match what’s in his head.  I like this quote too, “What had seemed like an exciting and noble undertaking now seems foolish and impossible.”  Can I get an AMEN here?  AMEN.

So, just in case I didn’t get the message, he actually spells out the lesson for me.  “Do not write beyond what the first draft is meant to accomplish.”  Explore the world, the story, and get to know the characters.  Make sure you’re asking the right questions.  Watch your characters in your mind and see what they do.

In the next post, I’ll continue sharing snippets of John Dufresne’s book, The Lie That Tells a Truth.  It really was a very good book and he had tons of “exercises” for the writer to do as well.