Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Alexander Steele
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This workbook-style guide to writing fiction is put out by the well-known New York City creative writing school. With 11 chapters, it delivers lessons on all the elements of fiction including: character development, plotting, establishing point of view, honing description, building realistic dialogue, varying pacing, establishing voice, determining a work’s theme, and carrying out revisions. It also has a chapter that goes into the business of writing (as opposed to the craft of writing which is the bailiwick of the first ten chapters.)
There are a couple of features of this book that set it apart from the vast canon of writers’ guides. First, this isn’t a single author work, which means the reader has access to a much broader pool of experience than one would in a single author text. It also means that an author can be assigned a topic according to his or her strengths as a writer.
Second, across the chapters, they use Raymond Carver’s Cathedral as an example work, and they provide that story in an appendix for those who haven’t read it. It’s not that the authors exclusively use this short story for examples. But it’s useful to have a common story and to include it because there are so many great stories and novels available that no matter how well-read one’s readership, there will be works that some haven’t read. (e.g. Much as I should’ve, I haven’t yet read nor seen the movie Gone with the Wind–a common exemplary work because it’s a beloved book, a movie, and because pop culture references [e.g. The Simpsons] have made the gist of it available to even those slackers who’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie.) There’s a reason why writers’ book authors often use movies to describe story elements, because there are many fewer movies than books and vastly fewer good movies—thus a higher likelihood of a common experience. Yes, there are a few works common across most school curricula, but there’s no better way to ensure that a book doesn’t get read thoroughly than to assign it as required reading.
A third useful feature of this book–but not one that is in any way unique to it–is that it offers writing exercises throughout to help build one’s skills through practice. This is where the value of such a book truly lies. The advice such books offer are almost always the same—sometimes hackneyed but almost always valuable. (A lot of tired advice is tired because it bears repeating owing to the constant infusion of new writers who repeat the same errors.) A final useful element of the book—but also one that features in many similar guides—is a checklist in the appendices that allows one to rapidly consider the book’s key questions as they apply to one’s own writing project.
I’d recommend this book as one of the most useful writers’ guides that I’ve read.