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Book Review of: The Writer's Journey

Mythic Structure for Writers

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Review of The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler (Paperback, 1998)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Having written over 6,000 magazine and Web articles, I'm not your average frustrated writer wondering why an agent hasn't signed me onto a $3 million book deal for my badly written novel. On the other hand, I have authored a few badly written novels. These, fortunately for most readers, have not been published.

The last novel I tried to write ended up being a poster child for "writing yourself into a corner." An article is normally 800 to 1500 words, so a different area of knowledge comes into play. I just can't seem to put together a novel-length work that doesn't read like a bunch of loosely connected articles. Such a work isn't a pleasure to read.

I don't like the idea of taking a creative writing class from someone who is teaching a creative writing class rather than enjoying the fruits of having successfully published a novel. This may be a silly viewpoint, but it's the one I have. Also, many authors who have never sat in such a class have been very successful. In an attempt to start learning how to tell a good tale of novel length, I picked up a copy of The Writer's Journey.

I read some of reviews that panned the book as peddling worn-out story structures that pretty much guarantee any writer who takes the book seriously won't have a dollar's chance in Congress of surviving (in case that metaphor escapes you, Congress burns money----why rerun the old snowball cliché?). But none of the reviewers' names were familiar to me, so I concluded these folks were non-achievers who have an ego-driven axe to grind.

If these structures were so 'worn-out," would that not mean that they underpinned many a successful book or screenplay? Vogler analyzed several movies that I enjoyed immensely, and those works followed this "worn-out" structure. If you think about houses, you will realize there aren't a great many structural variations compared to the vast number of floor plans, carpet choices, window placements, interior colors, sidings, landscaping, and other elements that give a home its own character. That's one reason those reviews did not dissuade me from reading this book.

Many reviews also give you a chapter by chapter breakdown. Since my repeating that doesn't add anything, I'm taking a different approach.

My every attempt to outline a novel has had dismal results. The next "new novelist" book I will get is going to address the subject of outlining. The reason why is I now understand a general structure for outlining. The purpose isn't to try to connect a series of scenes you've written. I have been doing this all backwards (I could use another Congress metaphor, but will resist the urge).

As Vogler states, you can use any structure you want and you can use any variation of the hero's journey (the structure that is the topic of this book). He calls it "a form, not a formula." The point is that you need to start with the structure and then work your way downward in the hierarchy of detail. This book is devoted to analyzing a structure found in a vast number of successful works.

Not having ever taken a writing class, I don't know if this is a fundamental concept that every MFA understands. But, I doubt it. I subscribe to three different magazines for writers, and have been a subscriber to one for about a quarter century. I've not run across this hero's journey concept before. Perhaps in a writing class, this is what you learn as the way to outline a book. Certainly, in grade school we learned how to construct a hierarchical outline using Roman Numerals and so the concept really isn't all that surprising. And, of course, everyone knows how to use MS-Word's collapsible outline feature (rather than paper index cards--yuck).

The twist here is the Roman Numeral portion of your outline, if it follows the hero's journey discussed in this book, will consist of Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. Each of those will then break down into capital-lettered components that each serves a specific purpose. For example, what will be the First Threshold your hero crosses? After you decide that, you can flesh it out.

I think if you have done a fair amount of writing, read dozens of books each year, have the composition skills needed to compose a work in Standard Written English, and have a way with words, you may stand a chance at writing a decent novel. The question then becomes one of what story you want to tell. But, you need a structure for that to be any good.

What do you write, most often? An e-mail is probably 100 words or less. A personal letter might be 400 words. A Web article, 800. A magazine article, 1500. Now, consider the novel. You aren't going to get an agent to consider one that's less than 60,000 words. But it can't be an article stretched out to 20 times its normal size. It needs an entirely different structure. Simply sitting down and pouring your heart out isn't going to get the job done.

People may argue that Vogler's book sets writers on a path of mass production. But if you think again of the house analogy, you see that isn't true. Vogler's analysis of many great works will help any writer better understand the structure behind a novel. Even if the novel you want to write has nothing to do with heroes, you can apply this same concept of structure. If you aren't a published novelist, add this book to your reading list.

 

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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