10 Books Project: Thoughts on Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway

Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (with Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French) was number six on the list of Goodreads’ popular creative writing books.

Because Writing Fiction is more of a textbook by nature (see below), it has more editions than other books on this list. For this project, I was able to get a hold of the eighth edition, which is not the most recent one. I make note of it only because there might be some content differences between the various editions that I’m unaware of since I only read the one. If you’re familiar with the book and you do spot some differences, I’d be interested to hear about them.

Below are some more detailed thoughts.

Holy textbook, Batman

So I’m guessing that a lot of the books on this list are the type of books that get used as texts in courses on creative writing. I remember first encountering Bird by Bird in a fiction writing workshop during my time as an undergraduate. I imagine a lot of professors use On Writing not just because it’s a useful text on the craft of writing but also because students will recognize Stephen King’s name.

But even though these books get used in classrooms, they aren’t necessarily textbooks, per se. Elements of Style comes close because before White got involved, Strunk used the original version as a manual for students in his classes but even then it’s more of a reference or guide than a textbook. Writing Fiction, on the other hand, is very much a textbook.

There are a couple of ways you can tell. First, the price. I ended up purchasing copies of all the books on the list so that I wouldn’t have to worry about loan periods from the library as I was doing my research. Writing Fiction was the one exception. The price for a new copy of this book on Amazon tends to fluctuate, but I’ve seen it anywhere from $45 to $90.(1) While the lower end of that range is not necessarily an outrageous amount (for a textbook), it’s obvious that the pricing here is not meant to attract a general audience of curious writers but instead students whose professors are requiring them to pay steep prices for course materials. I ended up requesting a copy through interlibrary loan and renewing it ad nauseam instead.

Another giveaway is the structure of the book. It’s not the only book on the list that includes exercises at the end of each chapter (The Writer’s Journey comes to mind) but it’s the only one where the exercises feel specifically like assignments, complete with assigned reading in the form of excerpts from pieces of writing that in some way exemplify the theme of the chapter. This is clearly set up as a teaching tool.

As for the last giveaway, well…

This is what I meant by prescriptive

Textbooks are meant to be authoritative. They’re very black and white. That’s why students, especially newer students, like them. They tell you what the answer is instead of making you figure it out for yourself.

Most of the writing books involved in this project certainly adopt a certain level of authority and will sometimes lay out some pretty hard line ideas about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to the craft of writing. King’s stance on adverbs comes to mind. So does Strunk & White’s attitude about the characteristics of what constitutes good, clear writing. Generally speaking, though, there’s an attitude in these books of “your mileage may vary.” Or at least, “if you choose to ignore my advice, that’s on you.”

By contrast, Burroway includes lines like this, from a chapter on creating characters:

“We need to know…preferably in the first paragraph, the character’s gender, age, and race or nationality.” (p. 129)

Whoa.

This is a level of prescription that you don’t really find in any of the other books and which is very characteristic of a textbook. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Younger students especially tend to want concrete rules to follow. They want to know that they’re doing it right because “doing it right” means getting a good grade, which is their primary focus. I just wish something like this left more room for critical thinking.

 

“You will inevitably know”

Of course, the one place Burroway is not at all prescriptive is with research. She does mention research exactly once, telling the reader that realistic settings should be “constructed from memory or research” (p. 166) without saying anything more about what the research might look like. Which is a little frustrating, considering this is a book that purports to detail the whole writing process from the spark of inspiration to revision. But then again, maybe it makes sense since research is often treated as being separate from the writing process rather than part of it. IDK.

There’s another line that comes from the chapter that really stuck out to me, though. It’s in the same chapter on creating characters, quoted above. Burroway tells the reader that when they are creating a character “you will inevitably know what is appropriate for that sort of person” (p. 129).

What.

No, but seriously. What?

I mean, okay. I write fiction sometimes. I know that feeling you get when a new character walks into your mind and it feels like you just know them. Like, you’re not creating them so much as you’re discovering them. It’s eerie and it’s cool and it’s wonderful.

But still. Something about this line drives me absolutely insane, especially considering how prescriptive the book is about everything else. I’m not saying research has to be involved in the creation of characters. But why not talk about how it could be?

 

Studying examples to learn about craft

So probably by now it sounds like I hated this book. I didn’t. As an educator, I can appreciate both the uses and limitations of the textbook genre. I can see students getting a lot out of a text like this. And also anyone else who wants to learn about craft and doesn’t mind the price tag or the prescriptive tone.

One place where I think this book excels is as an active example of studying the writing of others to learn something about craft. At the end of each chapter, Burroway includes example texts that exemplify the themes of the chapter. Other writing books do something similar, but usually (probably for copyright reasons), they only include a line or two from the work that they’re quoting. At most a paragraph or two. That’s not really enough to get a sense of how the elements of writing or story that they’re talking about (plot, characters, dialogue, etc.) work in context. Burroway gives you the big picture, or at least a bigger one than what’s offered in other books on craft.

Also, even though this is the sixth book on the list (and therefore the sixth one I’m posting about), I actually read it third, after On Writing and Elements of Style (coming soon!), and this was probably the first time it occurred to me that even though “research” as I typically think about it wasn’t going to come up a lot in these books on creative writing, reading to study the craft is a form of research. About that, many of these books say a great deal.

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(1) Just to mess up my life, the day I published this post, the price for the book was at $20. Go figure.

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