Small Demon
Mar 182009
 

A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:

The Story Behind the Story – Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of  experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)

12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.

Narrative Design – Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”

The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction – Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.

Modern Library Writer’s Workshop – Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.

  4 Responses to “More Books on Writing Fiction”

  1. Thanks for these lists. There’s so much utter crap out there about writing. It’s good to see some serious works. I’ve already requested one of them from my local library.

  2. Hi Joseph,
    I linked here from Josh Corey’s blog where you commented on my comment. I’m enjoying reading around your blog, and see your posts on how-to books. The book I mentioned in my comment, Backwards and Forwards, by David Ball, is the book that finally explained dramatic structure, and its purpose, in a way that I could truly understand. It’s a ‘Technical Manual for Reading Plays’, but I found it useful for fiction, which I have been writing for decades. The other book I found helpful (and please don’t laugh!) was Stephen King’s book on writing. I don’t remember the title, but he gives great basic advice, practical advice. Theory is interesting, of course, and necessary, but I think too much theory is paralyzing, especially to the beginner.

  3. Jon, I was just thinking I should email you after reading your comment at Josh Corey’s blog. Glad you stopped by. I’ve been writing poetry for decades but only just began to make a serious attempt at fiction. I feel that the move into fiction has opened up all sorts of possibilities that I couldn’t find in poetry and dramatic writing (in the technical sense) is chief among those freedoms. I’m going to write more on this, but thanks for commenting here and at Josh’s. I’m going to a copy of Backwards and Forwards.

  4. It seems we share an interest in Vietnam as well. But I have never been there, only researched the history and lierature a bit.
    Enjoy the book.

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