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

By Thomas Dodson

Craft Classics

Though one can find any number of modern books on the craft of fiction writing, the traditionalist will want to seek guidance from the great masters of the past. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, for example, collects the prologues Henry James wrote for the twenty-four-volume “New York Edition” (published in 1909) of his fiction; included is the well-known account of “the house of fiction” in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady. Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction provides an account of the development of modern fiction and discloses some essential truths about writing. Wharton observes, for example, that writers do not have a choice regarding the nature of their talent. Once they discover what they are good at, they must choose subjects that complement their strengths and “learn to renounce the others … as a first step toward doing that particular one well.” Another canonical craft book, E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, includes Forster’s often-quoted distinction between story and plot. A story is, Forster writes, “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” as opposed to a plot, in which events in the narrative are arranged with “the emphasis falling on causality.” Many will also be familiar with Forster’s categorization of characters as either “flat” or “round.” Flat characters “in their purest form … are constructed around a single idea or quality.” Such characters have their advantages: they are easy for the reader to remember and they bring with them “their own atmosphere.” Flat characters can also offer refreshing comic relief in an otherwise serious book. Round characters are more complex. They change over the course of a story, have multiple dimensions, and “cannot be summed up in a single phrase.” A successful novel, Forster counsels, needs both kinds of characters. 

Eudora Welty’s On Writing collects seven of the essays originally appearing in Welty’s The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. In one, Welty contrasts the approach to story and character taken by Chekhov, Faulkner, and D. H. Lawrence; in another she discusses how she developed one of her own stories, “No Place for You, My Love,” and arrived at its unusual point of view. And in “Must the Novelist Crusade?” Welty, a white southern author working against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, reflects on the relationship between political advocacy and the writing of novels.
 
In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose editors Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald bring together selected essays and lectures by Flannery O’Connor on topics ranging from peacocks to the relation between Christianity and writing to the need to preserve the distinctive character of southern writing. In more than one essay, O’Connor warns against writing stories from abstract ideas or in the service of political agendas. In a chapter titled “Writing Short Stories” she argues that stories must be grounded in the “concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of one’s position on the earth.” Ultimately, a story has to “convince through the senses…. It deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”

Works Cited