Research in fiction writing: Takeaways from academic writing books

Image by johns480 from Pixabay

So it took me a couple of months but I’m finally finished with the “academic” leg of my investigation into whether and how writing books talk about the role of research in fiction writing. Reading about the same subject over and over again can be exhausting and I was definitely getting a bit, um, cranky there at the end. (Actually, I was already a bit cranky at the start if you go back to my rant about The Way of the Writer, which was literally the second book I read.)

Now that it’s over and I have a little distance from it, I wanted to share a few quick takeaways.

Note: This post contains vague spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Haunting of Hill House for some reason.

Will they talk about research? They will indeed. (But only about 40% guaranteed.)

Yes, that’s a Dr. Seuss reference. No, I’m not embarrassed. Anyway, of the 15 books I read (including On Writing, which I read for an earlier version of the project but didn’t reread here), 6 of them talked about research. More than that mentioned research, but I decided not to count it if the book in question only mentioned research in passing and didn’t have anything to say about how it works or why it might be needed. Of those six, The Secret Miracle and Thrill Me were probably the most valuable sources. The Secret Miracle especially because it represents a wide variety of responses from many different types of authors (famous and not, literary and commercial, experienced and first-time) on the question of what role research plays in their work. Because of the way the question is framed, it also gets them to dive into whether they believe research interferes with or enhances their imagination, which is an aspect of this topic I definitely hope to dive into further. The variation in responses helps to show that everyone’s creative process is different and there’s no one right way of doing things, which won’t be a surprise to most aspiring writers who read these books but is a bit of a troublesome concept for scholars in my field because we tend to have such rigid ideas about what research is and how it should work that we often fail to even recognize creative research as research. I’m hoping the article I get from this project will help change my fellow librarians’ minds so that we can start to explore the greater universe of information-seeking outside our library doors.

The value of a classroom environment

Most of the books on this list tended toward what I eventually learned is called craft criticism. Craft criticism is where you examine the works of Great Authors in order to understand their technique and, therefore, why their work is so great. I wasn’t much of a fan of this stuff when I first started this project. I grew to really hate it by the end. Like, my eye would twitch every time someone talked about Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Dickens or Nabokov (or when Nabokov talked about himself). Partly that’s because I’m a bit of a philistine who chafes at the whole idea that in order for their work to be considered valid, writers must aspire to produce Great Art (and probably fail since only Great Geniuses can produce Great Art) and that for them to do otherwise is somehow crass or childish. (Seriously: screw that.) But I also think reading these books in isolation (somewhat literally) didn’t help. It could be that my appreciation of craft criticism was hindered by the fact that I didn’t have access to a teacher figure who could help me understand the larger context for what the books were trying to say or peers with whom to discuss these works, as I would have as a student. I mean, I’m a pretty smart person so I don’t necessarily need someone to explain this stuff to me but I could tell as I was reading that what I was reading might be more meaningful if I had someone to help place it in a larger conversation. I don’t know that I would have liked it more or that it would have changed my general opinion, but I definitely could have benefited from being exposed to a point of view other than my own.

Reconsidering some hostilities

Of all the books on my list, I probably enjoyed The Secret Miracle the most even though the format was a little difficult to get used to. Of the books I didn’t like, there were a few I ranted about at the time but the only one that still sets my teeth on edge when I think about it is Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing.

What I really hated about this book was that, despite its thesis statement at the beginning, it was not so much a book about how to write the type of book that Delany would like to read as it was about everything he hates about other people’s writing, including a thorough takedown of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in which he refers to her writing at one point as “imbecilic.” Ugh.

One of Delany’s oft-repeated pet peeves is about the use of flashbacks. This is actually a point that comes up in a lot of books about writing—apparently amateur writers have a habit of starting their stories with a brief introduction and then diving immediately into a long flashback, sort of like, “As Delilah woke to the sound of the alarm clock, she couldn’t help but think about the project she needed to present at work today and everything that came before…” In the interest of full disclosure, I have certainly been guilty of committing this particular sin. Delany’s advice in this case is that if you find yourself relying too heavily on long flashbacks, you’re probably starting the scene (or the story) too late—it needs to start earlier.

Because I didn’t particularly like Delany’s book, I kind of dismissed this advice at the time but then, a few months later, I thought about it a lot while I was watching The Haunting of Bly Manor and then again while watching The Haunting of Hill House. Both of these series are told largely in flashback. In fact, many of the episodes of Bly Manor past the halfway point of the series are basically nothing but flashback. It’s easy to see why they’re structured this way: the better to introduce shocking plot twists. Except none of the plot twists are that shocking and in watching both, I found myself thinking that each story would have been so much better if they’d been told in straightforward chronological order instead of constantly going back and forth to fill in the blanks. In other words, it would have been better if the storytellers had started the story earlier.

So Delany was right. I still hated his book, though.

What’s next

This project focused on “academic” writing books—those that were most likely to be owned by academic libraries affiliated with highly respected writing programs. Now I’m going to be taking a look at some “popular” books, meaning those that are widely read by general (rather than academic) audiences. I’ve done this before with my 10 Books Project, but this time I’m taking a slightly different approach. In the first iteration, I took the top 10 creative writing books on Goodreads and used those as my objects of study, which meant that I was looking at books not just about fiction writing but also about poetry, screenwriting, and more. This time,  I’m still using Goodreads as a source to help gauge what’s popular but I’m going to focus more narrowly on fiction writing, which is what I did with the academic books. This isn’t because I don’t think research plays a role in other types of creative writing, but because fiction writing specifically interests me (as a fiction writer) and because a narrower focus will help make the results more meaningful.

Based on past experience, I’m expecting to see a lot less literary and craft criticism (if any) among the popular books. I assume that these books will tend more toward the “how-to” aspects of writing and that because of that research will come up a little more often than in the academic books, though any in-depth information will likely still be scarce.

If you’re interested in reading about what I find as I find it, I’ll be writing about these books just like I did the academic ones, though probably in shorter “catch-all” posts rather than longer standalone ones, unless something comes up that seems worth exploring in more depth. There will be eleven books in all, including a few (like On Writing and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) that I’ve looked at before and will be re-examining a little here. We’ll see what happens.

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