This essay first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 6).
This essay examines resources for the study of the craft of fiction writing, focusing on works of interest to teachers and students of creative writing and to librarians seeking to develop collections to support creative writing courses. Though these courses are often taught in English departments, the needs of writers differ from those of literature students. Craft guides reflect this difference, for although a craft analysis may carefully examine a literary work, its aim is generally not to place that text in the context of a historical period or artistic movement, to uncover its ideological investments, or to develop interpretations through critical approaches derived from poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, materialist, or feminist theory. The purpose of a craft analysis is, as John Gardner explains in chapter 1 of On Becoming a Novelist, to help students “read to see how effects are achieved, how things are done, sometimes reflecting on what [they] would have done in the same situation and on whether [their] way would have been better or worse, and why.” Craft texts help novices learn the concepts and language of fiction writing from a practitioner’s point of view and make well-informed aesthetic choices in their own writing. Focused as it is on the craft of literary fiction, this essay excludes many fine works of criticism, craft books focused on the conventions of a particular genre (e.g., the romance novel), and works purporting to offer formulas for commercial success.
Books on the craft of fiction come in many forms. Some share generic features with self-help books, offering encouragement and exercises, together with advice about how to deal with such psychological travails of the writing life as writer’s block, envy, self-doubt, fear of rejection, and so on. Creative writing textbooks and less formally organized books may consider all the formal elements of fiction writing—point of view, characterization, narrative structure—or they may examine only one element. There are canonical texts by such writers as E. M. Forster and Henry James; modern classics such as Gardner’s mentioned above; and practical books that instruct the writer in fiction mechanics (e.g., conventions for communicating characters’ inner thoughts, how to punctuate dialogue). There are works that critique and challenge traditional ideas about craft, the status of canonized works, and standard approaches to the teaching of writing, including anti-racist writing pedagogy that does not silence but rather seeks to empower the writer of color. Finally, in addition to print there are online resources offering writing prompts—for example, journals, podcasts, and self-guided video courses with lessons by renowned writers. All of these genres are discussed below.
By its very nature this essay profits from the inclusion of quotations from notable writers of fiction. Because many of the books discussed are available in multiple editions, this author has foregone standard in-text page-number citation and instead cited by chapter or section title, when available.
Thomas Dodson is an assistant professor and the Web and Discovery Librarian at Southern Oregon University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He holds graduate degrees from the Ohio State University, Kent State University, and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.