During the 2014 Writer Unboxed Unconference, Donald Maass riveted his workshop participants by describing one scene contained within a breakout novel. In it, a family physician—a man who swore the Hippocratic Oath and spent his life tending to the citizens of his small town—is brought the corpse of a probable murder victim. His response? Rather than begin a forensic exam or move to preserve evidence, he takes a golf club and swings it directly at the victim’s face.
What could drive a doctor to a deliberate act of mutilation? we wondered. Was this the first of many betrayals? Would the dead young woman ever receive justice?
Since Don’s teaching agenda didn’t involve answering of these questions, and since we writers require the flimsiest of excuses to purchase yet another book, that evening saw a small spike in sales for The Virgin of Small Plains. But that wasn’t the end of it. Days later, those of us who devoured its pages found ourselves craving a time and place to discuss our Weighty Thoughts.
Thus was born the Facebook page devoted to reading and dissecting breakout novels from a writerly perspective.
Please consider this post both a brief report on how we operate and an invitation to join us, if you are inclined.
After that first, spontaneous choice, we developed a selection process for our books.
We aim for a broad range of genres, but we’re also after breakout novels which are affordable and/or widely available through libraries and secondhand bookstores. We don’t want cost to become a barrier to participation.
Anyone can nominate a book for discussion, and the final selection is determined by a vote. In instances where we’ve had two clear leaders, we’ve chosen to tackle them sequentially.
Our goal is to analyze one book every two months. To that end, these are the books we’ve dissected:
- The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—under discussion at the time of this writing.
You’ll notice the last three books incorporate particularly heavy-duty themes, conflict, and settings, so our next book choice will likely serve as a “palate cleanser”.
Rabid Discussion Ensues
Based upon Donald Maass’ books and workshops, we’ve developed a number of core questions which we apply to each book. The discussion is spread out over a week, spanning a weekend to ensure those people working a 9-5 job still have a chance to chime in while the questions are fresh.
Not every question is germane to every book, obviously, but here’s a rough list of subjects we tackle:
- the aspects of the book which make it high-concept
- theme and counter-theme
- the message of the novel, and how a different kind of outcome (i.e. happier, ironic, etc.) might have changed its meaning.
- identifying the external conflict and characters’ internal conflicts
- characters’ stakes and the quality of their characterization (e.g. whether everyday characters exhibit larger-than-life qualities, whether they show aspects of duality)
- plot layers and subplots
- bridging conflicts
- first and last lines
As you might imagine, participation varies according to schedules and interests.
We have quiet lurkers who aren’t (yet) comfortable sharing their opinions in public. We have people who can’t keep up with the schedule for one reason or another, but who consider the discussions to be an information vault for future plunder. Some participate in a few topics only, or restrict themselves to books residing within their natural wheelhouse. Others leave a comment on every thread.
The conversation is often robust, personal, informative, and challenging.
For instance, The Virgin of Small Plains inspired debate over certain plot points and whether they represented magical realism or an easy way out. Depending upon your point of view, that created an ending which resonated, or a false and unsatisfying resolution.
In discussing John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, one participant pointed out that the grief experiences in the book were limited to those experienced by a middle-class, intact families. That observation wasn’t meant to be a criticism, but it naturally invited a writerly question: Given a different cast of characters, how might the same story themes be explored in a fresh, unique manner?
Why bother going to this trouble?
It takes considerable time and effort to tackle a book dissection every eight weeks. So why do it? When I asked the other participants for their rationale, turns out their perspectives exactly echo mine and follow three distinct themes.
1. We read at a different level.
“I often get so wrapped up in reading for research that I “forget” to read fiction. Having a focused “book club” or discussion group is a good goal-oriented approach for me. I also find that I read more critically now, reading as a “writer,” not as a casual reader.” ~ Patti Mahan Welsh
“I find it really enlightening since I get so wrapped up in a well written novel that I don’t analyze it at all. I have had some issues with fatigue so I wasn’t writing or even reading craft for a few months, so I had plenty of time to read and savor both The Book Thief and The Fault in Our Stars, and participate in the book discussion. The book I read after TFIOS was The Moon Sisters. I felt better able to look at it from a plot and character perspective. (Well done effort IMO!). Now I am reading Jodi Picoult’s House Rules and even though I am very engaged, it feels very familiar to me and somewhat predictable so I know I am learning.” ~ Elizabeth C. Tully
“The club’s questions with regard to the many aspects of story made me uncomfortably realize that I’ve been reading unconsciously. In other words, I will sometimes discount a book’s worth to me without putting the thought into why some particular element of the story worked or did not work for me. But I do know this. A character’s goal, motivation and conflict and plot line are key for me. If a writer doesn’t understand why their characters do what they do (even if I don’t like it) or if the plot is one twisted road of everything and the kitchen sink–it will breakdown, not breakout.” ~Thea McGinnis
2. We understand craft at a different level.
“Donald Maass’s prompts and advice are like a secret guide for turbo charging literary fiction. I can’t say how many times my morning writing took a more powerful direction in reaction to one of his essays or prompts–often about specific novel issues, like strengthening the middle, that no one else seems to tackle. That said, our group here is a chance to use successful novels as mentor texts–to evaluate not just where Maass’s breakout novel theories are right, but where they may not (all) be needed to create a success.” ~ Elissa Field
“I’ve been a silent member mainly because my reading time has been filled with other books, but reading the discussions has allowed me to be that proverbial fly on the wall; to see the breakout novel dissected and learn how to transplant those elements into my own works.” ~ Mike Swift
“Somehow in discussing these successful books as a group, as both admirers and at times critics, they suddenly don’t seem as intimidating. It removes the mystique from the “successful author” label, allowing me to recognize and appreciate the diligent choices the authors made while crafting their books…” ~ John Kelley)
3. As our understanding of craft improves and our standards rise, you might anticipate we’d suffer from increasing performance anxiety. Much to our surprise, we found the opposite to be true.
“These dissections are often an excellent lesson in not following the “rules.” As we work through some of the questions, we see how the author has not included that element. Or how that element might be there, but it didn’t work for every reader. I really value the approach of the group, which isn’t to declare whether something is good or worthy, but to take it apart to figure out how it works.” ~ Natalie Hart
“I find comfort in knowing the works don’t necessarily ace every component of the Donald Maass workshop. Instead, the authors incorporate some elements exceptionally well, I imagine the ones that come most naturally for each. Yet in the end, each of their finished narratives convey confidence. As a reader who happens to be a writer too, I admire the way each author stuck to a clear vision. The lesson I take from that is to trust that my vision for my own stories has merit and to recognize that my primary responsibility as a writer is to make diligent choices so that the reader experiences the journey I envision.” ~ John Kelley
“…these discussions bring home the realization that you don’t have to (and perhaps cannot even) write a perfect book. If you excel in a few aspects described by Don, you can still have an excellent book. It is especially a great realization during the moments of self-doubt which are so frequent for an author.” ~ Priya Gill
Now over to you, Unboxeders. Do you participate in an analogous book club? If you do, has it shaped your understanding of fiction or your writing in a meaningful way? If you don’t, care to join us?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!