When Critics Say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’

SSX IN PRINTTwo years an eBook—now in print—STORY STRUCTURE EXPEDITION: Journey to the Heart of a Story.

It continues to draw rave reviews, such as:

  • What the hell sort of book is this, anyway?
  • It doesn’t teach us how to do anything.
  • It’s a “how-to” book that morphs into a novella.
  • You can’t do that!

I recently flipped through the pages of SSX to see what the critics were kevetching about. Guess what? I found myself saying—

What sort of book is this, anyway?

Truth is, it did morph, they’re right. It gets pretty crazy. I might have warned the reader with a short prologue. This sentiment from the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, would have hinted at the madness that lay ahead:

“I love those who don’t know how to live except in perishing—for they are the ones going beyond.”

That’s what my book is about—a fictional character going beyond the everyday.

Nietzsche is saying that humans are born into a condition that demands to be transcended. Our situation is a prison from which it is possible to escape. Fiction keeps telling us how it happens.

Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Heart of Darkness, ruthlessly dramatizes that theme. The protagonist, a riverboat captain, is the moth attracted to the flame of freedom.

Story Structure Expedition re-enacts that journey up the Congo River, to see how that fatal yearning plays out. To see what happens when a character commits to going all the way.

That’s what kind of book it is!

2) The book doesn’t teach us how to do anything


This recent review of SSX makes my day:

“[The purpose of] PJ Reece’s book is to encourage us to write, not to teach us to write. Reading this powerful book has me immediately up and creatively active again.”

The reviewer, an M.D. turned author, says she returned to her keyboard “with a new enthusiasm and a deeper understanding of my own story.” She goes on to say: “In my previous career, we called this the power of narrative therapy. I highly recommend this book to reader, writer, and seeker alike!”

Evelyn Wolff, you rock!

3) It’s a “how-to” book that turns into a novella

Sorry about that.

I’m sorry because writing a “how-to” book would have been so much easier on me. I didn’t anticipate the problems that would arise from establishing myself as a fictional author on a jungle journey.

As the protagonist, my attempts to reach (and describe) the heart of the story would have to fail. I absolutely did lose faith in my ability to finish the book. It was awful, seriously, I felt like quitting.

“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have believed in can hope to escape,” says W.S. Burroughs.

Leave everything behind, they say. But how does a mere mortal do that, without dying?

So, die!

4) You can’t do that!

I remember telling myself exactly that—Hey, PJ—you can’t do that. Which woke me up. Right? Because writers go where they’re forbidden to go, or what’s the point?

So I drowned in the Congo River.

But the story wasn’t finished yet, so I woke up on the muddy river bank with no recollection of how I got there. Can I do that? A character can’t just drown and then resume the journey, can he? Well, I did it.

What’s more, it was the year 1873. Nobody wakes up 150 years earlier, so I did that too.

Nor can a character wander out of one story and find himself in the landscape of a novel he wrote twenty years ago. So I did that, too.

What about a fictional character meeting his own narrator? A writer can’t do that, can he? Much less give that writer hell for not taking proper care of him. So, of course, I did all that, too.

So, what the heck kind of book is this?

I don’t blame the critics for asking. Here’s what some other reviewers have said:

“This book knocks the wimp out of the writer.”

“A story within a story within a story, with surprises layered like a Russian doll.”

“As much an exploration of the human condition as a lesson in story structure.”

“[It] demands to be read several times to fully comprehend the embedded jewels.”

“If you’re an aspiring (or even a perspiring) writer, this is one of the most valuable books you could ever crack open.”


So you really can crack it open.


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