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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Writing Great Fiction

Every so often I get one of those Great Courses catalogs in the mail. The prices are usually tempting, but audiobooks aren't a great medium for me: I prefer reading (I can read many times faster than I can listen to someone talk). Finally, when a $6.95 deal came along for Writing Great Fiction, I decided that for the price I could give it a shot.

It took me close to 4 months to listen to the entire course, and I have to say that I'm impressed. I've long been the kind of person who understood a topic better by understanding the implementation, rather than being the kind of person who could understand the theory all by itself. For instance, I understood continuations better when I realized that it was simply allocating the activation record on the heap rather than on the stack.

Similarly, this course can be treated as a set of instructions for writing fiction, but I chose to treat it as a discourse on the implementation into fiction, which gives insight about how great fiction is constructed. For instance, I find "stream-of-consciousness" novels a complete bore and cannot bring myself to read more than a couple of pages of Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, but James Hynes' analysis of the techniques behind those novels as well as why they're considered great made them completely comprehensible to me. (It also absolves any remaining need for me to read those books)

Similarly, he analyzes Anton Chekov's short stories, and uses examples from Alice Munro, J.R.R. Tolkein, Dashiell Hammett, Herman Melville, and James Ellroy to make various points about how to go about constructing a plot (and explains what the difference is between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story), writing dialogue, the use of first and third person narratives, and when to use narration versus painting a scene in detail. As with many college classes, he provides writing exercises at the end of each 30 minute lecture, in case you want to try your hand at some of the techniques he describes.

This is probably a great English literature class for those of you whose mind is like mine (i.e., prefers implementation over declaration/theory). I'm now even more sorry that my public University had so few spots in its creative writing courses that I was never able to snare one of the spots in those classes. While James Hynes might not be a great novelist (I never read any of his novels before starting this), he's a great instructor and quite capable of providing multiple examples for each techniques

The android Audible app (which I used to listen to all 12 hours of this course/audio book) is very well done. It remembers the state of your listening, and lets you resume precisely from where you left off at any point. I listened to this course on my android phone while hiking or doing other activities. It made a nice change from listening to music or NPR broadcasts.

Highly recommended, even for those of us who may never write a novel. This gives me more confidence to pick up one of those "Great Courses" at a good price the next time I find a deal.

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