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Rethinking the Craft of Fiction Writing: Resources on Teaching and Learning Creative Writing (January 2022): Textbooks

By Thomas Dodson


Instructors seeking a single, comprehensive book suitable for classroom use should consider Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing; Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Program, edited by Julie Checkoway. Each of these covers the fundamental elements of fiction in sections dedicated to point of view, plot and structure, character, revision, and so on. In the fourteen clearly constructed chapters of The Making of a Story LaPlante looks at both fiction and creative nonfiction. Before going into detail, each chapter offers an overview of the given element (e.g., dialogue) together with working definitions of terms. Chapters conclude with relevant exercises (some with examples of student work) and brief, illustrative works by professional writers. LaPlante offers straightforward answers to subtle issues likely to trouble the novice writer—for example, how to write a character-driven story in which things actually happen and conventions governing the degree of distortion imposed on a story by an “unreliable narrator.”

First published in the 1980s, Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French’s Writing Fiction was written to fill a growing need for textbooks for college-level creative writing courses. Now in its tenth edition, this admirable textbook still fulfills its original purpose. The original editions included an anthology of stories, but in the interest of keeping the book affordable, the authors now offer a list of ten recommended texts at the end of each chapter, followed by writing prompts. Writing Fiction does, however, provide many illustrative passages from stories and novels drawn not only from canonized writers (e.g., Raymond Carver, Thomas Mann, Flannery O’Connor) but also from newer voices such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yaa Gyasi, and Ottessa Moshfegh.

In Creating Fiction Checkoway brings together twenty-three essays commissioned by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Although structured as a collection rather than a textbook, Creating Fiction covers the key elements of fiction in essays by authors renowned for both their fiction and their teaching (John Barth, Charles Baxter, Lan Samantha Chang). The essays on point of view are especially strong (particularly the discussions of third-person perspective by Valerie Miner and Lynna Williams), as is Robin Helmly’s consideration of unlikeable or “unrelatable” characters in “Sympathy for the Devil: What to Do about Difficult Characters.” Each essay concludes with a set of exercises for personal or classroom use, and forty additional exercises are provided at the end of the book.

Writing teachers looking for an alternative text that will appeal to those interested in science fiction and fantasy should consider Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Whereas most books on literary writing assume realism as the default, Wonderbook has speculative fiction at its center. But VanderMeer’s advice about such craft elements as characterization and structure are as relevant to the writer hoping to publish a short story in The New Yorker as one intending to write a Hugo Award–winning fantasy novel. VanderMeer also includes material of special interest to writers of speculative fiction, for example worldbuilding. The book is well designed, with colorful illustrations and charts; it also includes a number of mini-essays by accomplished speculative writers such as Neil Gaiman, Catherine Valente, and Charles Yu, and it concludes with writing exercises. 

Works Cited