Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft

by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Ned Stuckey-French



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226616698
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 79,965
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Janet Burroway is the author of plays, poetry, children’s books, and eight novels, including The Buzzards, Raw Silk, Opening Nights, Cutting Stone, and Bridge of Sand. Her collection of essays, A Story Larger Than My Own, was also published by the University of Chicago Press. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University. She lives in Chicago and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

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Get Started Keeping a Journal Freewriting and Freedrafting

Keep Going Prompts The Computer The Critic: A Caution Choosing a Subject Reading as a Writer

A Word about Theme

You want to write. Why is it so hard?

There are a few lucky souls for whom the whole process of writing is easy, for whom the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the world at large an intrusion on their good time at the keyboard. But you and I are not among them. We are in love with words except when we have to face them. We are caught in a guilty paradox in which we grumble over our lack of time, and when we have the time, we sharpen pencils, check email, or clip the hedges.

Of course, there's also joy. We write for the satisfaction of having wrestled a sentence to the page, for the rush of discovering an image, for the excitement of seeing a character come alive. Even the most successful writers will sincerely say that these pleasures — not money, fame, or glamour — are the real rewards of writing. Fiction writer Alice Munro concedes:

It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, but that's what it is — the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.

Nevertheless, writers may forget what such pleasure feels like when confronting a blank page, like the heroine of Anita Brookner's novel Look at Me:

Sometimes it seems like a physical effort simply to sit down at my desk and pull out the notebook. ... Sometimes the effort of putting pen to paper is so great that I literally feel a pain in my head.

It helps to know that most writers share the paradox of least wanting to do what we most want to do. It also helps to know some of the reasons for our reluctance. Fear of what could emerge on the page, and what it may reveal about our inner lives, can keep us from getting started. "What's called writer's block," claims novelist Tom Wolfe, "is almost always ordinary fear." Indeed, whenever I ask a group of writers what they find most difficult, a significant number answer that they feel they aren't good enough, that the empty page intimidates them, that they are in some way afraid. Many complain of their own laziness, but laziness, like money, doesn't really exist except to represent something else — in this case fear, severe self-judgment, or what Natalie Goldberg calls "the cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure."

There's another impediment to beginning, expressed by a writer character in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Durrell's Pursewarden broods over the illusory significance of what he is about to write, unwilling to begin in case he spoils it. Many of us do this: The idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write about that idea is to commit it to rubble. Knowing in advance that words will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead. No matter how many times we find out that what words can do is quite all right, we still shy again from the next beginning. Against this wasteful impulse I have a motto over my desk that reads: "Don't Dread; Do." It's a fine motto, and I contemplated it for several weeks before I began writing this chapter.

The mundane daily habits of writers are apparently fascinating. No author offers to answer questions at the end of a public reading without being asked: Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you write every day? Do you compose longhand or on a computer? Sometimes such questions show a reverent interest in the workings of genius. More often, I think, they're a plea for practical help: Is there something I can do to make this job less horrific? Is there a trick that will unlock my words?


The variety of authors' habits suggests that there is no magic to be found in any particular one. Donald Hall spent a dozen hours a day at his desk, moving back and forth between as many projects. Philip Larkin said that he wrote a poem only every eighteen months or so and never tried to write one that was not a gift. Gail Godwin goes to her workroom every day "because what if the angel came and I wasn't there?" Julia Alvarez begins the day by reading first poetry, then prose, by her favorite writers "to remind me of the quality of writing I am aiming for." Like Hemingway, Andre Dubus advised students to stop writing midsentence in order to begin the next day by completing the thought, thereby reentering the creative flow. Yelizaveta P. Renfro always begins with lists, "often in the margins or endpapers of books I'm reading." T. C. Boyle starts knowing "nothing. Nothing at all. The first line comes and I start." Shawn Wong wants "to hear the language in my ears before I start writing." Dickens could not deal with people when he was working: "The mere consciousness of an engagement will worry a whole day." Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up. Some writers can plop at the kitchen table without clearing the breakfast dishes; others need total seclusion, a beach, a cat, a string quartet.

There is something to be learned from all this, though. It is not an "open sesame" but a piece of advice older than fairy tales: Know thyself. The bottom line is that if you do not at some point write your story down, it will not get written. Having decided that you will write it, the question is not "How do you get it done?" but "How do you get it done?" Any discipline or indulgence that helps nudge you into position facing the page is acceptable and productive. If jogging after breakfast energizes your mind, then jog before you sit. If you have to pull an all-nighter on a coffee binge, do that. Some schedule, regularity, pattern in your writing day (or night) will always help, but only you can figure out what that pattern is for you.

But you don't have time! It's true, you don't. You have a job, six courses, two kids, a dying parent, a divorce. I know; I've gone through all those things. One truth is that these hour-eaters will never get any easier; obligations and pleasures accumulate, and if you're lucky, life is always too full. If you're not, it's worse. So it's not that there will be no better time to develop the writing habit; there will no other time.

Another really important part of my writing process is that I have a writing group. ... You sit down, you're in a room, everyone has the experience together.

— Jennifer Egan

Yet I believe it is not really, or not mainly, a question of time. I used to fret that I never had time to write — yet I notice that I have time to read the morning op-eds, do some stretching exercises, put fresh flowers on the table, read one more chapter of fiction, have a glass of wine in front of the evening news, catch whatever late-night comic grabs my attention before I go to bed. What all those things have in common is that I don't make myself do them; I allow myself. The lesson is not that I should give up any of those pleasures in order to write. It's that I should allow myself also to write every day. It is not a duty; it's what I want to do and am willing to structure my life to do. Try — over and over again, if necessary — to think of that writing time, wherever it falls in your day, however short or long it is, as the time you allow yourself to indulge in this activity that is not an obligation but a choice.

Keeping a Journal

There are, though, a number of tricks you can teach yourself in order to free the writing self, and the essence of these is to give yourself permission to fail. The best place for such permission is a private place, and for that reason a writer's journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth.

Keep a journal. A journal is an intimate, a friend that will accept you as you are. Pick a notebook you like the look of, one you feel comfortable with. I find a bound blank book too elegant to live up to, preferring instead a loose-leaf because I write my journal mainly at the computer and can stick anything in at the flip of a three-hole punch. But you can glue scribbled napkins into a spiral, too, or take a picture and upload it, if you prefer to keep your journal entirely on the computer.

Keep the journal regularly, at least at first. It doesn't matter what you write and it doesn't matter very much how much, but it does matter that you make a steady habit of the writing. Keeping a journal regularly will put you in the habit of observing in words. If you know at dawn that you are committed to writing so many words before dusk, you will half-consciously tell the story of your day to yourself as you live it, finding phrases to catch whatever catches your eye. When that habit is established, you'll begin to find that whatever invites your sympathy or anger or curiosity may be the beginning of invention.

But before the habit is developed, you may find that even a blank journal page has the awesome aspect of a void, and you may need some tricks of permission to let yourself start writing there. The playwright Maria Irene Fornes says that there are two of you: one who wants to write and one who doesn't. The one who wants to write had better keep tricking the one who doesn't. Another way to think of this conflict is between your right brain and left brain — the playful, detail-loving creator, and the linear critic. The critic is an absolutely essential part of the writing process. The trick is to shut him or her up until there is something to criticize.

Freewriting and Freedrafting

Freewriting is a technique that allows you to take very literally the notion of getting something down on paper. It can be done whenever you want to write, or just to free up the writing self. The idea is to put ...

anything on paper and I mena anything, it doesn't matter as long as it's coming out of your head nad hte ends of your fingers, down ont the page I wonder if;m improving, if this process gets me going better now than it did all those — hoewever many years ago? I know my typing is geting worse, deteriorating even as we speak (are we speaking? to whom? IN what forM? I love it when i hit the caps button by mistake, it makes me wonder whether there isn;t something in the back or bottom of the brain that sez PAY ATTENTION now, which makes me think of a number of things, freud and his slip o tonuge, self-deception, the myriad way it operates in everybody's life, no not everybody's but in my own exp. llike Aunt Ch. mourniong for the dead cats whenevershe hasn't got her way and can't disconnect one kind of sadness from another, I wonder if we ever disconnect kinds of sadness, if the first homesickness doesn;t operatfor everybody the same way it does for me, grandma's house the site of it, the grass out the window and the dog rolling a tin pie plate under the willow tree, great heavy hunger in the belly, the empty weight of loss, loss, loss

That's freewriting. Its point is to keep going, and that is the only point. When the critic intrudes and tells you that what you're doing is awful, tell the critic to take a dive, or acknowledge her/him ("typing is geting worse") and keep writing. If you work on a computer, try dimming the screen so you can't see what you're doing. At times, you might find it liberating to freewrite to music, random or selected. If you freewrite often, pretty soon you'll be bored with writing about how you don't feel like writing (though that is as good a subject as any) and will find your mind and your phrases running on things that interest you. Fine. The subject doesn't matter, nor does the quality of the writing. Freewriting is the literary equivalent of scales at the piano or a short gym workout. All that matters is that you do it. The verbal muscles will develop of their own accord.

When I stare at a blank page where I'm supposed to build worlds and lives, I think that maybe I shouldn't be doing this after all. But if I start with something, with one thing, everything follows.

— Tabitha Chartos

Though freewriting is mere technique, it can affect the freedom of the content. Many writers feel themselves to be an instrument-through-which, rather than a creator-of, and whether you think of this possibility as humble or holy, it is worth finding out what you say when you aren't monitoring yourself. Fiction is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven't yet found out, you're likely to end up pontificating or lying in some other way.

In Becoming a Writer, a book that only half-facetiously claims to do what teachers of writing claim cannot be done — to teach genius — Dorothea Brande advises that you rise each day, go directly to your desk (if you have to have coffee, put it in a thermos the night before), and begin writing whatever comes to mind, before you are quite awake, before you have read anything or talked to anyone, before reason has begun to take over from the dream-functioning of your brain. Write for twenty or thirty minutes and then put away what you have written without reading it over. After a week or two of this, pick an additional time during the day when you can salvage a half hour or so to write, and when that time arrives, write, even if you "must climb out over the heads of your friends" to do it. It doesn't matter what you write. What does matter is that you develop the habit of beginning to write the moment you sit down to do so.

Freedrafting, as you might expect, is a slightly more focused and directed way of getting the juices flowing. You've done a freewrite that suggests an interesting character, or you want to catch what that smell from the pantry reminds you of, or you're midway into a story and you haven't quite caught the dialogue between these two. Focus on the interest or the problem, jot a list, maybe, of whatever associations you may have, then take a breath, stare into space, and launch yourself forward, focusing on the subject at hand but making no corrections and no judgments. You're not expecting a piece that's polished or even well-spelled. You're giving your subconscious the best way it has of finding the way onward.



Exercises, or prompts, can be helpful for writers at all stages. They help you get started, and they can give you focus — whether you are writing in your journal, doing those early morning pages Brande suggests, sneaking in a bit of freewriting during the day, or trying to get to that next scene in a story.

Prompts are another way to tap your unconscious. The process of writing does not proceed clearly and obviously from point A to point B, but if you've been thinking about your story — sleeping on it, puzzling over it, mulling about it, working on a draft — you may well have a solution waiting for you in your unconscious. Stories do not begin with ideas or themes or outlines so much as with images and obsessions, and they continue to be built by exploring those. Seemingly unrelated prompts can help you break loose that next page. Need to find out what should happen next with Nick and Ashley? Here's an exercise: write two pages about the two of them trying to decide what television show to watch. Pretty soon Nick and Ashley are fighting about the remote control, but more than that they're fighting about how Nick is remote and always wants control. Ashley is telling him that their relationship has got to change and he's acting like he doesn't have a clue. And you are off and running.

Gymnasts practice. Pianists practice. Artists sketch. Prompts are a form of writerly practice, a way to exercise your skills, develop them, hone them, make them stronger.

Each chapter of Writing Fiction will end with some prompts designed to help you get started and move further into the issues discussed along the way. You can also find books of exercises (What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter has deservedly become a classic). Glimmer Train publishes a quarterly pamphlet of advice and perspectives called "Writers Ask." And there are numerous websites with prompts and exercises; one I especially like is published by Poets and Writers magazine. The online Brevity magazine has short and pithy craft essays. Internet help is also offered by LitHub, Catapult, and Narrative Magazine.

The Computer

I think it's important for a writer to try a pencil from time to time so as not to lose the knack of writing by hand, of jotting at the park or the beach without any source of energy but your own mind and muscle.


Excerpted from "Writing Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Whatever Works: The Writing Process
2 Seeing is Believing: Showing and Telling
3 Building Character: Characterization, Part I
4 The Flesh Made Word: Characterization, Part II
5 Long Ago and Far Away: Fictional Setting
6 The Tower and The Net: Plot and Structure
7 Call Me Ishmael: Point of View
8 Is and Is Not: Comparison
9 Play It Again, Sam: Revision and Theme


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