Friday, July 30, 2010

Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Writing Fiction

If you need to remind yourself of how vast the industry of writing how-to books is, just take a look at this list of “some of the newest books on the craft” of writing. The list is put together by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which hosts a plethora of online writing courses. The Gotham crew also has a book of its own: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School (New York, 2003; 291 pp.). That’s what this post is about.

What’s distinctive about this “practical guide”? First, it’s wide-ranging: it goes from fiction on chapter 1 to the industry of fiction on chapter 11. That’s a lot of bases to cover, and they don’t flinch before the task.

Second, it’s very accessible, without being dumbed down. They’re not out to write treatises on character or point of view. They mention whatever’s essential, spice it up with insights, intersperse exercises, and that’s it. Chapters are a topic each, and about twenty-five pages apiece. There are plenty of exercises, not end-of-chapter exercises as in many other writing manuals, but during-chapter prompts. That makes the book feel like a course wedged between two covers. Hence “practical.”

The book pulls off an interesting feat. Each chapter is written by a different author, but they all have a consistent mix of anecdotes, general advice, and examples, filtered through an easy-going and amusing voice. The editor spliced the different chapters so well that you could easily fall into the illusion that the book was written by a single author. Polyphony is a virtue, sure, but it always involves the risk of having chapters that aren’t up to par. It isn’t the case in this volume.

Two recurrent quarries for the examples in the book are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatbsy and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” For easy reference, the editors included “Cathedral” as an appendix. And it was a good call, since it’s such a fantastic story.

Now that I’ve gushed about the book for a few paragraphs, here’s the caveat: I wouldn’t recommend it for more experienced writers. What I mean, more specifically, is people who have been writing for a while, read profusely, and have plowed through a few books on writing craft. Then again, if you have a read a few of those, reading another one that covers the bases doesn’t hurt.

Say you’re anxious to get the most out of the book in the least amount of time. Then the editors thought of you: there’s a “cheat sheet” at the end that distils each chapter into a few basic questions. But that’s almost like cheating, you’ll say, and I’ll agree. In that case, turn to Peter Selgin’s chapter (“Revision: Real Writers Revise”). It’s masterfully written (funny, clever, insightful) and it acts as a Baedeker to the whole book, gleaning the wisdom of each chapter as you’ll use it during the process of revision. It’s enjoyable and useful. Read at least that.

And, if you’re serious about fiction, read the last chapter: Corene Lemaitre’s on the business of writing. It’s remarkably lucid and down-to-earth. You’ll read about royalties and contracts, about the short story market and the enterprise of finding an agent. There even are tips on writing cover letters and two sample letters: one for short stories and one for novels. How can you go wrong with that?

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