Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on About Writing by Samuel R. Delany

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at About Writing by Samuel R. Delany

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What I learned about creative research at the Writer’s Digest Conference

So earlier this month, I attended my very first Writer’s Digest Annual/Novel Writing Conference, which happened also to be my first non-library conference and my first virtual conference. Overall, it was a great experience! I focused my time mostly on craft-related talks for reasons explained below but there were also quite a few on the publishing business and more self-help related topics that I’m hoping to catch up on via archived recordings. Definitely worth the time and something I would probably attend again, either virtually or in-person.

Though I’ve been aware of Writer’s Digest as a publication for quite some time, I don’t think I ever knew they had their own conference. Instead, I stumbled on the information about it while searching their website this past summer as part of my project to read through 10 years’ worth of their author interviews in search of information about the role of research in fiction writing. I thought attending the conference might be a good opportunity to learn more about my chosen topic, especially when I saw that there was going to be a presentation by Susan Meissner specifically about research and historical fiction.

Turns out the conference was one of the best opportunities I’ve had yet to learn more about creative research, both in a passive and active sense. I was surprised how much the topic came up even in craft talks that were not focused on research. When it didn’t come up on its own, I was able to get in a few questions as part of the Q&A that the presenters were then kind enough to answer. I’m also hoping to follow up with a few authors and presenters who said that they were open to being contacted after the conference.

Here’s some of what I learned:

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Bringing the Devil to His Knees

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi.

This isn’t the first time a work with Charles Baxter’s name on it has shown up on my reading list. The last was Burning Down the House, a collection of essays that he authored which, at times, seemed to challenge the idea that the techniques of Great Writers can or should be imitated. This time, he’s the editor of a collection of essays by a variety of authors, all of whom generally uphold the more common notion that Great Literature is, in fact, an instruction manual for the rest of us.

This book is so focused on analyzing literature that it was easy to forget that it is, in fact, about writing. There were entire essays here that did nothing but summarize Great Works, one after the other, usually in service of some point the author was supposed to be making about technique but which really just felt like…well, summaries of other stories. There was a lot of thinking here about what makes great literature great but little or no advice on how to make your own writing great (or at least publishable).

As I expected when I began this project, this is pretty typical of “academic” writing books. There have been a few surprises along the way (Thrill Me was something of a change of pace, though not as much of one as I thought it was going to be) but for the most part these books, which are the writing books most likely to be found in the collections of academic libraries on campuses with highly respected creative writing programs, are much more about literature than they are about writing. In fact, Bringing the Devil to His Knees is exactly the kind of book I would have expected to encounter as a required reading for one of the courses I took as an English major.

At least now that I’m learning more about creative writing pedagogy, such as it is, I’m starting to understand why academic writing books choose to eschew the “how-to” aspects of writing in favor of a focus on analyzing literature. I just finished re-reading The Elephants Teach by D.G. Myers, which lays out the history of creative writing programs in universities in the United States. According to Myers, a key factor in the development of creative writing programs was a shift in thinking about literature itself. Before, the only literature that college students studied was from Greek and Latin poets—the classics, some of which had been produced thousands of years earlier. Literature was treated as a static object from the past. It was only when people started thinking of literature as ongoing that things changed. Now people could study literature in order to understand what made it work so that they could produce new literature.

In other words, as Myers puts it, creative writing was about studying literature from the inside. This is still very much the case in undergraduate creative writing programs. As an undergraduate creative writing student, you’re learning to read like a writer. If you have enough talent (or money…or both) to get to the graduate level, then that’s where you start actually learning to become a writer. Sort of.

Which is to say, the how-to of creative writing never really seems to be part of the pedagogical conversation, except through the back door of analyzing Great Literature. Myers actually discusses the rise of “how-to” writing textbooks, which in the early days were authored almost exclusively by women. Because of this, Myers says that they were (and apparently still are) largely viewed as “women’s books.” Which kind of helps to explain why they’re often treated as “lesser” than books like Bringing the Devil to His Knees.

You might think that because creative writing pedagogy places so much emphasis on reading like a writer that this would make conversations about research impossible. Certainly the topic doesn’t come up much in books like Bringing the Devil (though it has appeared on other books in this list). Research is more of a how-to and therefore not a good fit for a literature-focused text. But I wonder if it’s possible to analyze Great Literature through the lens of its use of research. I think it must be. I mean, research in fiction is meant to be largely invisible—at least when it’s done well—but once you start looking for it, it’s possible to find evidence of research all over almost any piece of fiction that you read. If this is the case, it must be possible to show how even a Great Writer uses research in their work and maybe even point to some techniques they use to integrate it into the fabric of their stories.

I realize I’ve probably said more here about The Elephants Teach than I have about Bringing the Devil and that when I have talked about Bringing the Devil, I’ve talked more about what it isn’t than I have about what it is. Like I said, it’s definitely the type of book that seems like a comfortable fit as an assigned reading in a creative writing program while not necessarily being the type of thing you would pull off a bookstore shelf if you were an aspiring writer interested in learning how to write. The message here is the same in most of the other books I’ve read so far, which is that we should all aspire to produce Great Literature but only Great Writers produce Great Literature and you are probably not a Great Writer.

Better understanding why books like these have a focus on literature has eased some of the frustration I feel about them. That said, I wish if these books were going to talk so much about literature that their repertoires were a little more varied. Spotting the references to Flanery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Virginia Woolf or Chekhov or Hemingway has become like a drinking game. Sometimes it feels like we haven’t gotten that far from treating literature as a static thing from ancient times.  

Research in fiction writing: What I learned from Five Things posts on Terrible Minds

As part of my investigation into the role of research in fiction writing, I’ve been seeking out author self-reports mostly in the form of Writer’s Digest interviews and how-to books to see whether research ever comes up. I decided to add the “Five Things” posts from Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog to my list for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it was these posts that inspired my research in the first place.

If you’re not familiar, Wendig is a bestselling author who regularly features posts on his blog by other authors as a way of promoting their work. These posts are almost always framed as “Five Things I Learned [while writing the work being promoted].” Though the posts are obviously meant as a signal boost and a marketing tool, the authors who write them often offer meaningful and interesting reflections on the writing and publishing process as well as bits of advice for aspiring writers. It’s a great way to discover new favorite authors (or hear from familiar ones in a new way) and the thoughts they are always worth a read.

That said, I’ve spent the last month or so reading through five years’ worth of these things (2015-2019), over 120 in all. I had planned to do 10 years’ worth (or as close as I could get if the series had been running less than 10 years) for the sake of consistency since I’d read 10 years of Writer’s Digest interviews and consistency is a big thing with peer reviewers when you publish research. But, yeah. Turns out 120 blog posts is…a lot.

If you’re wondering what I learned about writing from reading these, I actually found a lot of consistency in many authors’ advice. Basically: the second book is always harder than the first book (especially when the second book is the middle one in a trilogy), figure out which hills you’re willing to die on when you and your editor disagree about something, write what you love instead of trying to follow the market (even if what you love is exceptionally weird), don’t overpromise on what you can deliver, and don’t feel guilty if you’re not as successful/productive as someone else.(1)

Also: do your research.

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Thrill Me

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy.

So I may have gone on a bit of a rant a few weeks ago after reading The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson. In it, I complained about Johnson’s insistence that only literary fiction can be considered a valid form of creative expression and his general disdain and dismissive tone whenever discussing non-literary fiction. This really raised my hackles because of my own experience as a creative writing student, where the privileging of literary fiction in the classroom led me to produce work that got me a good grade but didn’t really reflect who I was as a writer. Then I got mad all over again when I read (Woman) Writer by Joyce Carol Oates, whose feminist perspective got me thinking about all the ways that the privileging of literary fiction disadvantages and excludes the work of women and people of color. Grr.

It was a pleasant surprise then to pick up Thrill Me, one of the newest books on my list of “academic” writing books, and discover that it begins with an essay about the author, Benjamin Percy, being discouraged from writing genre fiction as a creative writing student and the effect that this had on him. His story is a bit like my own in that he learned to produce the type of writing the teachers were looking for (to greater success than I did, it sounds like) but ultimately he’s made his career as a genre writer. So ostensibly this is a book that considers genre fiction on equal footing with literary fiction.

And yet.

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Information literacy and identity negotiations

So while I’ve been on sabbatical, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about writing pedagogy. Most of this has been in the area of creative writing pedagogy but a few of my sources are from the writing studies field more generally or another area like composition. I recently got through Writing and Sense of Self by Robert Edward Brooke, a self-described composition specialist. The book describes the workshop model through the lens of identity negotiations, which was useful for my creative writing-related research but actually made me think more about my information literacy teaching as well.

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Research in Fiction Writing: Thoughts on (Woman) Writer and The Faith of a Writer

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research in the creative process, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m talking about two books by Joyce Carol Oates: (Woman) Writer and The Faith of a Writer.

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