Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Fictive Dream

The Draw of Fiction: Emotional Human Connection

“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.”1 For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Not only does fiction offer the reader the opportunity to select, via book selection, which emotion to feel—love, hate, fear, courage, jealousy—as Burroway points out fiction offers the reader the opportunity to feel intensely without doing any more than turning a page. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect, to search for an understanding or meaning from life and life’s events. “…the value of great fiction …is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”2 The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader intellect and emotion.

The Importance of Details on Reader Response: Intellect vs. Emotion

As any magician knows, details draw attention. Details aid in the illusion. And as a magician controls the audience’s attention by way of carefully placed details, the writer can also use detail to direct reader attention and control reader response. The audience member, as does the reader, goes along with the illusion knowingly, asking in return the delivery of a promise. The magician uses sleight of hand to deliver that promise; the writer uses description.

Description is accomplished by providing details; however, to be effective details must be carefully selected and effectively placed. The writer must focus on the goal of the detail and determine the best details accordingly. Intellectuality is one concern. A detail is “…significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both.”3 This is not to say that the writer should use details to insert their own judgment but to offer details in such a way as to allow the reader the opportunity to make a judgment. Burroway clarifies for writers how to effectively weave intellect and emotion. “Much of what you (the writer) mean will be an abstraction or a judgment—love requires trust, children can be cruel. But if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.” Emotionality is another concern when selecting and placing details. “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.”4 Consequently, if the writer wants the reader to be engaged both intellectually and emotionally, sensory details are essential.

The Fictive Dream: More Than Descriptive Detail

“Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”5 Detail is the basis of that dream. “…in good fiction, it’s physical detail that pulls us into the story, makes us believe or forget not to believe or accept the lie even as we laugh at it.”6 This total immersion is the result of a response that takes place within the reader as a result of effective detail “that…creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind…In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real.”7 Details alone are not enough to accomplish this; James Frey takes the concept of the fictive dream a step further than a singular focus on details. “As a fiction writer, you’re expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.”8 When in this transported state the reader’s subconscious—the area where sensory input is processed and decoded—has been engaged and is the primary source of response. Tapping into the reader’s subconscious requires more than carefully placed details; it requires a delicate linking of details to story components.

Frey noted three stages that enable the writer to reach the subconscious and thus fully transport the reader into the fiction dream:

Sympathy: “Sympathy it is the doorway through which the reader gains emotional access to a story.”9 It requires that a character be placed in a situation which will evoke an emotion so intense—loneliness, repression, danger, embarrassment—that the reader will feel sympathy for the character.

Identification: “Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character’s plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.”10 In order for the reader to support those goals and aspirations the writer must make clear what the character does or does not want to happen.

Empathy: A writer can “…win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling—the feelings that trigger emotion.”11 Empathy is a much stronger emotion than sympathy, and it is through empathy that the reader will feel what the character is feeling. This is achieved by using sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be the character and to experience what the character is experiencing.

1-p74, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction
2-p31, Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction.
3-p76, Writing
4-p75, Writing
5-p32, Art
6-p30, Art
7-pp30, 31, Art
8-p6, Frey, James. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling
9-p8, How
10-p10, How
11-p13, How

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Island of the Lost Girls: Lyrically Lost

Childhood is typically filled with stories; among them are adventure tales from books, family histories adults pass down to children, and fantasy stories children make up themselves. Each of these stories serves a different purpose; stories from books fuel the imagination and spirit, family stories passed down connect the child to those who came before, and stories children make up themselves provide an outlet for individual expression. The ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS by Jennifer McMahon intertwines these three types of stories, playing the present against the past, in order to bring a series of events full circle.
The defining plotline of the story, which is told through a series of flashbacks which eventually fold into the present, is the main character’s, Rhonda, discovery of the abuse of her childhood friend, Lizzy, and the cause and perpetrators of the unsolved murder of Daniel, Lizzy’s abuser. The supporting plotline is the kidnapping of a very young girl which Rhonda witnesses. Although the resolution of the novels connects the two plotlines; the story events alone are not intended to give the book its full impact.

The significance of the book comes from the reader’s interpretation of and reflection on story events rather than from observing character growth. While it is evident that as a result of the story events, Rhonda has answers to questions that lingered from her childhood, she changes little from the beginning to the end; there is modest, if any, “actualization of the potential that exists in character and situation.” (p185, Art of Fiction by John Gardner). For example, one event that would have been highly likely to produce character transformation was the loss of Rhonda’s virginity. When Rhonda makes love for the first time, there is no real change in her; she does not reflect on how the experience has impacted her as a person or, more specifically, as a woman. Later, when she learns that the man she made love to accidentally killed the little girl he was paid money to kidnap, she does not experience any significant sense of regret, loss, or confusion.

Although Rhonda does suffer self-imposed guilt for not interrupting the kidnapping when she observed it, she did not suffer any consequence that increased as story events unfolded. Whether the lost girl is found or not has no real, long-lasting, consequence to Rhonda. Furthermore, none of her loved ones are threatened by the kidnapping of the girl either. The same holds true for the events revealed from the past. The discoveries she makes, learning that her father had been previously married to a family friend, for example, involve events that occurred to others.

These observations are not given to imply that LOST is lacking, but to indicate the actualization of character is not the goal of the novel. In fact, having the character remain fundamentally static strengthens the book’s intent; it encourages, requires, the reader to respond emotionally. Consider if the novel had been written differently and Rhonda’s emotional reactions were the focus. If that were the case, then the emotional impact would have been diluted as the reader would have been experiencing them through Rhonda rather than directly.

LOST is what John Gardner refers to as a “lyrical novel”, one in which “What carries the reader forward is not plot,,,but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key…cluster of images (and) group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the events.” (p185, Art) Gardener observes that, “Such a story can be interesting, even brilliant, but it can never achieve the power of an energeic action because the control of action is intellectual, it does not rise out of the essence of things…It does not capture process.” (p166, Art) While I believe it is up to the reader to determine whether or not LOST compares positively to energeic fiction, I would agree that LOST does not capture process. It defers to the impact of outcome; it reveals and invites examination. The outcomes of the characters’ discoveries are the responsibility of the reader to determine. To accomplish this, McMahon employs the use of allusionary themes.

As the title, and backstory involving Rhonda, Lizzy, and other characters performing a play of Peter Pan, suggests, LOST relies heavily on an understanding and consideration of the story Peter Pan for overall impact. LOST is not simply about how a woman learns of the sexual abuse of a childhood friend; it is an examination of the effect of the premature loss of childhood, how as one learns the truth of the world, one loses innocence, and when that innocence is pulled away too soon a person will continue to feel that loss as an adult. This theme is echoed in the use of allusions and direct references to the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Rhonda, Lizzy, and their childhood friend Peter, are each cast into a world beyond logic and reason, a world where they do not belong. Additionally, each of these characters have experiences with a white rabbit that cause them to wonder if they are in fact the same person they were just before the rabbit crossed their path.

By tucking the past into the present, McMahon creates a lyrical novel that does more than simply tell a story of one girl’s lost childhood. ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS artfully steers away from victim exploitation as it explores the tricky territories of sexual childhood abuse and the burden of secrets between friends and family. As a result of careful crafting, the reader is not weighted down by sentiment but instead lifted up with understanding and appreciation for the importance of childhood.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Irishman, Book to Movie Interview with Author and Agent

By Roberta M. Gubbins, Ingham County Legal News

Lawyers write. They write briefs, opinion letters, memos, contracts of all sorts and sizes, wills, trusts—I could go on forever. Many write fictionalized stories based on events that happened during the course of their careers. Some of those stories are published and some are made into movies. How does that happen?

Recently I met with Rick Porrello, author of “To Kill the Irishman, the War that Crippled the Mafia” and his agent, Peter Miller, of PMA Literary & Film Management, Inc. They were in Detroit to assist with the filming of the action movie based on Porrello’s book, the true story of mobster, Danny Greene, a violent Irish-American gangster who competed with the Italian mob in 1970’s Cleveland--a competition that provoked a country-wide turf war.

Code Entertainment is producing the movie, which stars Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene, Christopher Walken as loan shark and nightclub owner, Shondor Birns, and Val Kilmer as the Cleveland police detective who befriends Greene. Jonathan Hensleigh directs the film. “They plan to release it by St. Patrick’s Day,” said Porrello.

Porrello, now Chief of Police in Cleveland, wrote his first book, “Superthief,” about his mobster grandfather and uncles who were killed in the early 1930s by opposing factions of the mob. “I started “The Irishman” immediately after my first book. My wife and I opened a bottle of champagne when we got the author’s copies, and I said I would never, ever do this again. But once I got those books in my hands, I thought ‘I’ve got to do this again, very soon.’

I self published “The Irishman.” I couldn’t come to terms on a deal with my original publisher so I decided to self-publish the book.” When it came out, two movie companies got in touch with Porrello, wanting exclusive movie rights. “I had no idea how to decide between them. I contacted Peter (Miller). He read the contracts, negotiated for me, and advised me which deal was best.” Code Entertainment bought the movie rights. “That was eleven years ago.”

“Where we are now,” said Miller, joining us after one of his many phone calls, “with the movie in production, and the book going to be published by Simon and Schuster, and I’m now going to auction it off in England and Ireland, is where we want to be.”

“It is not easy getting a movie produced. It has gotten much more complicated. There are two ways to make movie deals. One is you work with a studio, sign a contract with them, and you are at their complete mercy. On those deals, I get a fee as an executive producer and they buy the movie rights. That is plan A.”

“Plan B is an independent deal. Code Entertainment has five investors. We wanted to do it as a bigger movie, but the actors wanted a bonus package to be able to bring their entourage. You would not believe what these actors bring to the table—‘an extra non-accountable one million dollars for their chef and their barber and their baby sitter and on and on.”

“This is very important to Rick, I am proud that we worked for a long time to accomplish this. And the script is dynamite. This has been a long road for Rick, but it is a good road, and it will give him gravitas in his world. He will sell more books.”

“My first edition of the “Irishman” had lots of errors in it,” said Porrello, laughing. “I didn’t have a professional editor or proof reader, but the book was selling so well that after the third printing, I got almost all of the errors sorted out. It still needs work but we never got to that point. Now we will, because the book is being published by Pocketbooks and they will work with me to polish it.”

“I promoted it by starting a web site called It is the biggest and most comprehensive organized crime history on the net. We are eleven years old, and we get several thousand hits per day. And everything is archived—we have many original feature stories. Several authors who have written books about organized crime started with”

Miller and Porrello are executive producers of the film. After our meeting, they were off to the film set to watch as Porrello’s book was made into a movie. With luck, we will see the final result next spring.

Cutline for photo: Peter Miller, PMA Literary & Film Management, Inc. and Rick Perrollo, author of “To Kill the Irishman,” celebrate the filming of a movie based on Perrollo’s book.
Article and Photo by Roberta Gubbins, Ingham County Legal News