It has been said that in America one can never be too rich or too thin. Judging by the amount of shelf-space given to the writing reference section...

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“From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction”

by Robert Olen Butler, edited

and with an introduction
by Janet Burroway

Grove, 269 pp., $22

It has been said that in America one can never be too rich or too thin. Judging by the amount of shelf-space given to the writing reference section in bookstores, one can safely add: or have too many how-to books on writing.

Pulitzer Prize-winner (“A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”) Robert Olen Butler’s advice to novelists in “From Where You Dream” stands out among similar titles in the market. Originally offered as a set of lectures, the book doesn’t dwell on craft considerations, as is common. Instead, Butler delves into the heart of the subject matter: the creative process. The mistake many student writers make in creating fiction is in thinking and analyzing their way into it, thereby filling their works with abstractions and generalizations.

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“Art does not come from ideas,” Butler says. “Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.” How does one reach this deep inner self? Suggestions include rolling out of bed in the morning and immediately retreating to a place reserved only for writing fiction or, perhaps, playing music.

Before beginning a novel, Butler advocates the use of dreamstorming. A writer watches his character and floats around the dreamy milieu of his novel and identifies potential scenes. He jots down a few sensual details about each scene on a 3×5 index card. Then he arranges the cards in sequence and finally begins to write the scenes.

Another crucial element, one that drives the plot forward, is the “dynamics of desire.” For readers to engage early in a book, the main character must have a longing that will set her on her journey. Butler advises his students not to start writing until the nature of this longing becomes intuitively obvious.

Though some writers will probably feel reluctant to completely embrace Butler’s principles, they’ll surely find many useful concepts scattered throughout his book.