A Writer’s Library – Writing Fiction

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft – Janet Burroway

After Wren and Martin Grammar and Composition and The Elements of Style, this should be the next book on your rack if you’re an aspiring fiction writer. This is the first book I read on the subject, and while I have other favourites that do certain things better than this one, no other book comes this close in giving you a thorough working-over in all aspects of writing. Almost every question you’ve asked yourself about writing is addressed to here, and there are exercises covering just about every scenario that you can think of.

Loosely speaking, the book is made up of five sections:

  1. Creativity

Here Janet suggests different techniques to generate ideas and thoughts that will one day be converted into words. How do you come up with the seed of your novel? Can inspiration be forced or does it have to be fervently wished for? One of the take-home messages from this section is that no matter how much you achieve (or not) during one day of writing, you should always go back the next day. The longer you stop flexing your mental muscle, the more rust it gathers.

  1. Story structure

In this section, Janet talks of how the structure of stories has changed over the centuries we’ve been telling them – and perhaps more significantly, how it has remained the same. She discusses the idea of plot and how it differs from the story, how conflict, crisis and resolution form the skeleton of almost every story ever written, and how the elements change between the short story and the novel.

  1. Show, don’t tell

This entire piece is dedicated to the golden rule of fiction: show, don’t tell. Here she tells us how important it is for writers to master the art of the significant detail in order to show well. If the whole section can be summarized in two sentences, they would be: “Indulge the senses. Write in terms of action.” Because actions and descriptions show. Everything else tells.

  1. Characterization

Janet devotes two sections to characterization, and I must say I’ve not read a better treatise on characterization. Flat, round, universal, typical, heroic, forgettable, secondary – characters of all types are discussed and demonstrated through examples taken out of published literature. Different methods of characterization are also given. If you’re crazy enough to read just one part of this book, make it this one.

  1. Atmosphere

Many beginning writers struggle with this because it’s so hard to grasp. We all have an intuitive feel for story and character, but what of atmosphere? How do you draw your reader into the world you’ve created? How do you give him a sense of place and time so realistically that he would wish never to leave your story? Not all of us can create worlds like Tolkien did, but we can try, and this section covers the basics.

  1. Viewpoint

Another of those things that writers starting out struggle to understand, and if they do, fail to put into practice. When judging a manuscript for evaluation, one of the first things editors look for is a solid grasp on viewpoint. Who is telling your story? What is the difference between the narrator and the author? Where is the narrator located in your scene? How much can he see? You must think of all of this, and the more you know about your story, the clearer it becomes to your reader.

  1. Comparison

This is a section of the simile and the metaphor, of allegory and symbolism. There is an excellent part in this section that talks about common mistakes that people make with metaphor. If you’re poet just starting out, you’d do well to read this. I see so many budding writers so enamoured with metaphors that they think they must stuff a metaphor into every second sentence. One of the first things you will learn about metaphors in this section of the book is that you should use them sparingly. And that you should choose them wisely.

  1. Theme

The book ends with a discussion on theme. As Stephen King likes to say: “If you wrote a three-hundred-page book, it better be about something”. Often you will find that theme emerges unbidden out of your work; all you need to remember is to know it when you see it and then nurture it and tease it out so that it holds your work together. Take care, though, that you don’t keep beating on the theme over and over again throughout your book (“you know, this is what you think I am saying but this is what I am really saying – wink wink”) because that will just piss your readers off. Respect their intelligence, allude to it vaguely, and let them figure it out.

See? Everything you need about writing fiction, and I mean everything. Each section comes with its own examples, case studies and writing assignments too, so you really have no excuse not to own this book. Buy it, read it, commit portions of it to memory, and practice what it says until it all becomes second nature. Trust me, you will not regret this purchase.

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