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From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction Reprint Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0802142573
ISBN-10: 0802142575
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pulitzer-winning novelist Butler (Had a Good Time, etc.) teaches a creative writing class at known as "boot camp" because of the intense creative demands he places on students. This series of lectures (edited by Burroway, a graduate of the class) deftly conveys the intensity of the class as Butler exhorts students to get out of their heads and into the world of the senses ("Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists...."), which he posits as the seat of the emotions. Butler's emphasis on sense memories recalls Method acting, and like Stanislavsky, Butler most highly values work with deep emotional connections and rich "organic coherence" at every level. Identify your character's yearning, he says: plot "represents the dynamics of desire." Butler has little to offer anyone hoping to write the sort of commercial fiction he regards as "non-literature." But in illuminating his approach to fiction, Butler can be equally hard on his own work, and discusses various issues by analyzing its faults—for instance, that good dialogue isn't expository, it has subtext. To illustrate his positive points, he draws on works ranging from Margaret Atwood's to the Old Testament. The book also features works by students and thoughtful class discussions of them, and closes with Butler's story "Open Arms," discussed in earlier sections. Butler shares his insights into—and passion for—the creation and experience of fiction with total openness, and seriously aspiring writers should receive this text/manifesto in the same light. Agent, Kim Witherspoon. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

There's no doubt that Pulitzer Prize winner Butler, whose many fictional works include Had a Good Time [BKL My 1 04], knows how to write literary fiction, and it comes as no surprise that his approach to teaching fiction writing is intense, given the venturesome nature of his work. Butler taped his lectures, thus preserving their dynamism, and the edited result is a remarkably candid, clarifying, and profoundly demanding how-to. Butler's credo is, "Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where we dream." Consequently, he teaches wanna-be fiction writers not how to brainstorm but how to "dreamstorm," and explains why fiction must be rooted in sensual experience, how cinematic techniques create narrative flow, and how "yearning" must be the driving force in every story. Butler's electrifying theories are backed by illuminating examples and startling practices (you'll never look at index cards in the same way again). Incisive and provocative, Butler's tutorials are a must for anyone even thinking about writing fiction, and readers, too, will benefit from his passionate exhortations. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; Reprint edition (January 9, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802142575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802142573
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #143,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is a cleaned-up presentation by the author, Robert Olen Butler. On that basis it's certainly worth a 5 star rating. But I would expect most people buying this book expect more of a traditional presentation. Still, the lecture format, with extemporaneous examples, helps you understand the process. It's like a form of showing rather than telling. I actually liked the format, but other readers might not.

I can see how one reviewer states that the author is better in the short story form. The author evangelizes a right-brain approach of emotional writing that contains "no abstraction, no generalization, no summary, no analysis, no interpretation." I think this approach is excellent in short fiction. But, there are additional important issues that come to play in long forms of fiction.

The book offers a detailed look at writing the "right-brained" and "emotional" way. And thus, we find the title: From Where You Dream. The author says all fiction should originate from your dreams, not from your mind. There are exercises that almost explain this process. The reader has to ponder and analyze a lot to get the full benefit of this book, which is not bad in itself. But this is greatly offset by following the link to the author's online video presentations. GREAT, GREAT, GREAT! Where else can you get a chance to listen to a noted author and watch him create a short story on the fly?

This approach is so valuable, and the philosophy and the techniques presented so workable that this book will prove valuable for all readers. To become the "master of the sensual moment" will require repeated readings of this transcription of the author's workshops. He has put some of these presentations online and points you to his website.
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Format: Hardcover
This book has its good points. The editorial review mentions "dynamism," and the lectures are certainly that. Also, when the review argues that this book is a sort of "manifesto" of the author's vision, I wholeheartedly agree. It is nice to read a coherent perspective on writing and the process of artistic creation from a writer that does not sacrifice passion for some kind of mechanistic clarity or something of the sort.

However, the ideas are ultimately simplistic. I would even argue that they are harmful ideas if not taken with a grain of salt. I, for one, stop trusting anyone who begins to put a limit on what writing can be. Writing is feelings not thoughts. This is literature, this is non-literature. That sort of thinking. It is another situation where an author has wrestled with himself and the establishment to find a unique voice, but who after becoming "legitimate" would like to close the door on what other voices might sound like. And it doesn't come as any surprise to me that Butler, in his picture of what good literature is composed of, manages to overlook a dimension missing from his own works (let's call it an artistic blindspot.)

I think Robert Olen Butler is a very good writer. Particularly in the short story form, he has achieved some moments of brilliance and excellence. But his short stories read like long prose poems. And when he tries to lengthen or elaborate them, they fall apart under their own weight. This is why his books or novella-length works do not operate as well. When I compare his works to those of a greater writer (say, a William Faulkner, a Joseph Conrad, a Henry Miller, a Norman Mailer--and that's no mean company I'm putting him in), I find that what is missing is the intellect (but writers "are not intellectuals"!
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Format: Paperback
This book must be read from beginning to end. To skim, or try to get a general sense of it will be to lose the power of his tone. He gives comforting words on dealing with rejection and his insights into the state of modern literary fiction never seemed more appropriate. He addresses, as do all master teachers, the importance of reading and he explains how to read-- both for pleasure and for criticism.
"You should read slowly. You should never read a work of literary art faster than would allow you to hear the narrative voice in your head. Speed-reading is one reason editors, and not incidentally, book reviewers can be so utterly wrongheaded about a particular work of art."
Butler's methods are very prescribed; about how to tap into the dreamspace, how and when to write, even how to journal. This could be a turn off for some, but I found it an interesting insight into one artist's process.
Butler argues convincingly for the effectiveness of his methods throughout the book, one of which is using index cards to record scenes and structure the novel. He outlines how to fill out the cards, and why one must not vary from his suggestions. Another example of how specific he gets is in an exercise later in the book where he has a student recall an anecdote with the most sensory detail possible, focusing on where in the body a sense and emotion comes from. There is also a written exercise that focused students on an object that evoked anxiety. These, as well as his discussions of how dreams and films work, illustrate how we already deep down know how to get to the core of a scene, and the corresponding emotion.
This was my favorite writing book for many years. I am happy to find that everything that struck me as important when I first picked it up is still very much relevant to today.
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