Writing: Fiction

There were no books about writing fiction 150 years ago. MFA programs didn't exist, no one lectured on making characters believable, and people were only interested in writers if they were interesting people. Everyone knew the best way to write good fiction was to read widely and write often.

Seeds were already planted for a change of perspective, however. At the beginning of the 19th century, a group of writers called Romantics were preoccupied with the writing process itself. They believed all artists were specially suited to create art due to innate characteristics they possessed, and that their creations were the result of mystical inspiration.

In time, this idea spread throughout Western culture, and artists were seen less and less as people who worked hard to create for the benefit of the masses, and more and more as particularly gifted (and usually tormented) individualists who created for the sake of a tuned-in elite.

Originally this elite group was comprised of wealthy and powerful people. But the Industrial Revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the erosion of class structure increasingly blurred the lines between the rich and powerful and the common men and women who rose through the ranks in virtue of their own hard work and intelligence.

As a result, it became much more difficult to delineate between the elite capable of understanding art, and the masses awash in their own squalor, too Cro-Magnon to penetrate the mysteries of the Cult of Art. The answer? Artists made their work more difficult to understand, more strange, and less accessible to the so-called common man.

Once on this path there was no going back. Art became more and more bizarre, so that much of what passes for art now is unintelligible. It worked this way: as societies became increasingly democratic, the ability to understand art became increasingly widespread, but artists felt the need to stay several steps ahead.

But is all this posturing really art? Just because David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers can manipulate words and ideas cleverly doesn't mean they have anything to say, or even that what they write is entertaining. "Art" that isn't instructive or insightful and isn't entertaining is not art, it's just pretension or playing.

Enter the contemporary student writer. What is he or she to do? If they accept the Cult of Art, they need to learn how to wow people with meaningless pyrotechnics. If they want to write a real story, though, the best approach hasn't changed—read widely and write often.

Plenty of manuals tell you exactly how to write a story, how many characters to have, which plot to follow, where to set the action, etc. Some may be useful at times, especially for beginners, but all these books really offer is the formula their authors use for writing fiction, which they assume is universally applicable and successful.

Young writers shouldn't assume there are no rules, that fiction writing is easy because you just make stuff up. While invention is integral to the process, fiction only succeeds if it mirrors real life, showing us something new, helping us understand others better, even helping us undertsand ourselves better.

Before art became a cult for the initiated, its purpose was to delight and instruct, to entertain and provoke. The more people that could be reached this way the better, so authors made their characters and plots relatable, consciously avoiding attitudes and styles that would confuse and confound.

Thisapproachmust be recovered, or written art will become a thing of the past. Wedon't need formulaic storiesor a bunch of literary peacocks who have nothing to say except that there is nothing to say (which is the deafening chorus right now).

Having something to say is the most important element of good fiction writing. Whether it's showing others what it's like to play baseball, psychologically examining a character, or exploring philosophical ideas, the story's theme drives the author to write and makes it worth reading.

Theme is crucial because it's how an author communicates to readers. Without communication any story is worthless, like talking to a mirror or scribbling disconnected letters on a page. Unfortunately, people have been told for so long that art is difficult to understand that authors feel compelled to make it so, and therefore they write in vain.

A story can have many themes or only one, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the writer adequately handles the theme or themes chosen. Student writers should stick to one theme per story until they've mastered that—for beginners, it's hard enough to express one idea or event well.

We carry several books about writing fiction. Positively, they provide guidelines for students to use like training wheels. The bad thing is that most students don't yet have the critical thinking skills needed to take the good advice and leave the rest. Or, having accepted the good advice, they use it as a rubric for producing whatever they write from then on.

There's no easy solution to this problem, except that good fiction writers read lots of good fiction, and any student serious about writing fiction will be shaped as much by what she reads as the advice given her by other writers. So, we present these guides with glad reserve, urging all who use them to do so with care.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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