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About this book

If you are a writer of fiction, this practical handbook will teach you how to acquire your own writer's tool-box. Here you will learn all about developing your craft. The wide-ranging exploration of fiction-writing skills contains many unique features, such as the focus on reflective learning and tuition on advanced skills including foreshadowing, transitions and producing short story cycles. Throughout, the approach is centred on three kinds of activity:

- examining the theory of particular fiction writing skills
- analysing the practice of these skills in examples of published work
- practising the use of skills in fiction-writing exercises.

What makes this guide so distinctive, though, is the way it consistently asks you to reflect on your work, and stresses the importance of being able to articulate the processes of writing.

Packed with wisdom about the art of fiction and filled with writing exercises, How To Write Fiction (And Think About It) examines the work of today's finest authors to teach you everything you need to know about writing short stories or longer fiction. Whether you are a student, a would-be professional author, or a general reader who simply likes to write for pleasure, this guide will equip you with a portfolio of key fiction-writing skills.

Table of Contents

How A Writer Works

Frontmatter

1. How A Writer Works

Abstract
Plenty of expert opinion suggests that our creative practice divides into two categories, however we label those categories. I don’t know who it was that claimed that producing great writing was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, but this is the division of creativity we’re talking about: between the stroke of imagination and labouring at it to produce the finished whole. Oscar Wilde argued that genius was an infinite capacity for detail, which, like the inspiration/perspiration proverb, suggests that the balance lies firmly on the side of effort. Most informed opinion, however, indicates a more even split between inspiration and perspiration, and affirms that creativity involves both stages. The process is one of having an idea and then fashioning it into shape. In writing fiction, the first stage is the imagining. This comes from the same place as your dreams do: the unconscious mind.
Robert Graham

2. Making Notes

Abstract
Why do 100 metres sprinters train? In part to keep fit, but perhaps mainly so that they are prepared for the events in which they will compete. Same deal with concert pianists: they practise in order to perfect their technique, to keep their fingers supple, to learn to keep in time and it’s all preparation for the occasions when they will perform. Every time you sit down to write fiction, you are giving a performance. If you want to perform to the best of your ability, you need to practise, practise, practise — which is certainly part of what writers use notebooks for. John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, says, ‘I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers.’1
Robert Graham

3. Keeping Journals

Abstract
The habit of keeping a writer’s journal is one of the key disciplines of writing fiction. Apart from anything else, it is where you assemble the resources that will become your fiction. In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor argues that
a writer with good material is one who never lets a useful nugget slip away… A titbit doesn’t have to be earth shattering to be worth saving. It only has to be useful.1
Robert Graham

4. How To Read As A Writer

Abstract
According to the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, ‘For the writer, reading is part of the process of writing.’ For Oates, reading is an essential part of any writer’s apprenticeship:
Even before we know we will be writers, our reading is a part of our preparation for writing… Every book, every story, every sentence we read is a part of our preparation for our own writing.1
Robert Graham

How To Write Short Stories

Frontmatter

5. A Brief Tour Around The Short Story

Abstract
The term ‘short story’ did not appear in an English dictionary until 1933. The form is difficult to define. The short story comes in many shapes and sizes. Short stories are usually restricted in time, place and number of characters. Some stories move towards a single ascending dramatic scene or revelation which is generated by conflict. Joyce Carol Oates’s definition of the short story is a useful one:
It represents a concentration of imagination and not an expansion; it is no more than 10,000 words; and no matter its mysteries or experimental properties, it achieves closure — meaning that when it ends, the attentive reader understands why.1
Robert Graham

6. The Distance Between: Author, Narrator, Reader And Point Of View

Abstract
Every work of fiction has a viewpoint character. The viewpoint character is your host, the person from whose perspective — perhaps even from within whom — we access the story.
Robert Graham

7. Characters

Abstract
Writing is a laboratory in which writers, like mad midnight scientists, create creatures, and having created them, toy with them, plunging them into terrible situations to watch and describe their behaviour. If you’ve ever played The Sims, or watched Big Brother, you might note disturbing similarities.
Helen Newall

8. Living Elsewhere: Plot

Abstract
Maybe there are some writers around who give birth to plots like Mother Hubbard did children, but I haven’t met one of them. Most of us struggle immensely with the whole business of constructing a storyline that will ensnare, retain and move — not to say change the whole life of — the reader. Plotting is hard, but let’s see if we can’t make it a little easier.
Robert Graham

9. Scenes

Abstract
The screenwriter William Goldman has this advice about beginnings: ‘We must enter all scenes as late as possible. We must enter our story as late as possible.’1 While it’s true that cinema is a less patient medium than, for instance, the novel, my view is that fiction readers are impatient enough. I regularly receive student work in which the story doesn’t actually begin until late on page 1, 2, or 3. Sometimes this is because the authors don’t discover what the story is about until they have warmed up their engines. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t fully aware of the reader’s need to commit to the story.
Robert Graham

10. Dialogue

Abstract
Stories move forward most efficiently through characters acting and speaking, so lesson one on dialogue is that it is a terrific way of keeping your story moving forward. Most of what I hope you will learn in this chapter can be found in this edited passage from Sarah Waters’ first novel, Affinity.
Robert Graham

11. Setting

Abstract
As in the legendary Spike Milligan exchange above, everybody has to be somewhere and this is true in your fiction of the characters and their situations. Internal monologue, authorial summary and exposition might be included in a list of exceptions, but as far as scenes in fiction go, you will have to set them somewhere.
Robert Graham

12. Epiphany

Abstract
The moment when the three wise men have the revelation that the baby Jesus is God’s messiah is the first use of the term ‘epiphany.’ James Joyce appropriated the term for literary applications, but it has never lost its original characteristics: it has to do with revelation and it has a spiritual dimension. The critic Valerie Shaw explains that
By an epiphany [Joyce] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable expression of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.1
Robert Graham

13. Reflection: How To Think About Your Writing

Abstract
The title of this book gives a clue to the thinking behind it, and in particular the part in brackets will hopefully suggest the importance of reflection in learning to write fiction. The ethos and methodology of the whole book have to do with thinking about the way you read and write, all with the intention of helping you become a better writer of fiction. It’s a good idea to acquire the habit of doing this not just in your head but also on paper — thinking about your writing in writing. (If you don’t write down your thoughts, they are never more than half-formed.) You will benefit from habitually examining not only the creative processes involved in your work, but also your growing understanding of the kind of writer you are. You need to learn to be both self-aware and self-critical. Also, you will develop faster as a writer if you are able to articulate your creative processes. As well as reflecting on your own developing craft, you need to be able to analyse the craft of those you aspire to emulate. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this: you will grow much faster as a writer if you regularly examine your own and others’ work. You also need to begin to be able to analyse the literary context you wish to be a part of and to articulate your own intentions.
Robert Graham

How to Redraft

Frontmatter

14. Redrafting 1: Editing

Abstract
Redrafting is where you get down to the nitty-gritty. Your first draft is only the raw material from which you are going to sculpt a thing of beauty and truth. In a sense, with a first draft you have assembled the resources from which you are going to build the finished item. You probably won’t need all these resources, and many of them won’t initially be up to the task they need to perform. As Tom Wolfe says, ‘You go to bed every night thinking that you’ve written the most brilliant passage ever done which somehow the next day you realise is sheer drivel.’1 But that’s okay. You can make the resources you’ve assembled better, and if you can’t, you can get rid of them and generate some new resources in their place.
Robert Graham

15. Page Design

Abstract
Your page should be double-spaced (1.5 line spacing is also fine) and you should format your page with a clear font (Arial and Times New Roman are the most commonly used) and a font-size that will be easily read (for instance, 11 in Arial, 12 in Times New Roman). Up at the top of the first page, the titles of stories and chapters are usually in bold. When you mention them, you will need italics for the titles of books, films, CDs, magazines and newspapers. The convention for a long time has been to put the titles of articles, short stories and songs in single speech marks, but the music press has begun to italicise song titles in recent years, so you’ll have to play that one by ear.
Robert Graham

16. Peer Appraisal

Abstract
One of the key learning and teaching strategies in Creative Writing is informal peer appraisal. Apart from the many good reasons for engaging in peer appraisal, which will follow in a moment, this is a useful stepping-stone to workshopping, which can be daunting in the early stages of learning your craft. To spell it out, what I mean by peer appraisal is asking a small group of your friends or fellow students to read a draft of your work in progress and give you feedback on it. This feedback is only in the form of comments (which, coming from fellow writers, will be informed comments); peer appraisal does not mean peer assessment.
Robert Graham

17. Writer’s Workshops

Abstract
The University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop is the oldest and most prestigious graduate writing programme in the USA. Graduates of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop include Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Irving and Jane Smiley. Philip Roth taught there in the 1960s, and it was at Iowa that Walter Tevis wrote the story he later expanded into The Hustler.
Robert Graham

18. Redrafting 2: Revising

Abstract
Writing fiction, according to James N. Frey, is a hundred times more difficult than you think it is ‘because a writer has a damn hard time evaluating what he has written, and unless he knows the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript it will not be possible to turn a draft into a finished piece of work.’1 This is part of the challenge when you come to revise your work. Another difficulty is ensuring that your characters and situations are fully realised. Struggling to imagine himself in the shoes of a young woman who robs a bank, André Dubus had a moment of illumination:
I could not get inside of her, become her. Then one day or night I decided to try a different approach. I told myself that next day at the desk I would not leave a sentence until I knew precisely what Anna was feeling. I told myself that even if I wrote only fifty words, I would stay with this…
At my desk next morning I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for only a moment before writing, as a batter takes a practice swing while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.2
Robert Graham

How to Manage Fictional Time

Frontmatter

19. Some Notes On Handling Time In Fiction

Abstract
Henry James observed that ‘the eternal time question is… really a business to terrify all but stout hearts.’1 Every writer of fiction must confront the question of how to handle time.
James Friel

20. Foreshadowing

Abstract
According to James N. Frey, ‘Foreshadowing is the art of raising story questions.’1 Every time you raise a question in the reader’s mind, you are foreshadowing and — not just because it is crucial to raise questions in the reader’s mind — this is a key storytelling technique.
Robert Graham

21. Transitions

Abstract
One aspect of the pressure to be dramatic is the need for movement. I’ve said already that a story has more in common with a movie than a photograph; it ought to involve movement almost all the time. In attempting to keep your story moving, you will need a variety of means for a variety of purposes to move your reader around.
Robert Graham

22. Crossing Timelines And Breaking Rules

Abstract
How fast or slow does time go? Most people will answer ‘It depends’ because we are all very well aware that time seems to go too fast when we are doing things we enjoy and extremely slowly when we’re bored. The writer can simply describe this experience:
The long afternoons I spent in the Maths class nearly drove me mad with boredom
or
I was so much in love with Jenny that the hours I spent with her went by in a flash and were over far too soon.
Heather Leach

How to Write with Style

Frontmatter

23. Meaning, Sense And Clarity

Abstract
As you will remember, during my visit to Iowa in 2001, I was a guest in Frank Conroy’s workshop. During the workshop I witnessed, while Conroy was offering a critical reading of a piece of student work, he was at pains to convey to his students the difficulty of achieving ‘meaning, sense and clarity.’ In the following, from his essay ‘The Writer’s Workshop,’1 Frank Conroy expands on his beliefs about accurate expression.
Robert Graham

24. Description

Abstract
Good fiction conjures an alternative world, gives you a window into someone else’s life, takes you somewhere other. Above all, it’s convincing. Effective description is fundamental to this process. The aim is to entrance your reader by the cunningly set stage to the extent that they don’t notice the ropes and pulleys supporting it all. The art is in judging what is salient and what is boring, when to zoom in and when to draw back, when to show and when to leave intriguing gaps, when to elongate and when to contract. Effective description, just like a palatable brew, takes skill and judgement: too much cloys, too little is bland; get it right and the good times roll.
Ursula Hurley

25. Sentences

Abstract
Concision is a matter of removing the superfluous and the redundant, two slightly different things. You might say the superfluous is what you can manage without. The redundant, I suppose, is that phrase or word which amounts to stupid repetition of one kind or another: ‘Sunrise at this time of the year comes at 6.30 a.m.’ (It’s never going to be p.m., is it?) Or ‘This CD was electronically recorded.’ (How else?)
Robert Graham

How to Broaden Your Canvas

Frontmatter

26. Demons And Angels: Using A Persona

Abstract
‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,’ says Gilbert in Oscar Wilde’s The Critic As Artist. ‘Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’1
Jenny Newman

27. Looking For The Drama

Abstract
There used to be an insurance advert about ‘not making a drama out of a crisis.’ As far as fiction writers are concerned, the opposite is the goal: drama and lots of it at every opportunity. Of course, a crisis is the obvious place to find drama, but there are ways of presenting it that can effect a transformation from mildly interesting to absolutely nail-biting. An excellent example is Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. The first chapter sucks you in and chews you up, creating a hurricane of narrative drive that keeps you turning the pages right through the book.
Ursula Hurley

28. The Longer Story

Abstract
There are a great many rewards for the writer in choosing the short story form. It is a practical option, which may be fitted into the schedule of those of us (most of us) who have to earn a living. There’s also the advantage offered by the limitations of length. You aren’t committing years of your life to a short story, which, with the novel, you often are. The variety of writing short stories may appeal to you, too, as it did to Henry James: ‘I want to leave a multitude of pictures of my time, projecting my small circular frame upon as many different spots as possible.’1 It’s certainly the case that most writers find it difficult to begin their fiction writing lives with a novel, and working with a shorter form is a helpful way of learning your craft. This is not to say that the only purpose or virtue of writing short stories is as a staging post on your journey to becoming a novelist. Far from it. If anything, the short story is a more difficult form than the novel, as William Faulkner, for example, thought. But it is the case that learning fiction writers, certainly in university programmes, begin by practising the short story.
Robert Graham

29. The Short Story Cycle

Abstract
In ‘Only Connect,’ a short essay on form in the online magazine salon. com, Robert Morgan, the author of Gap Creek, suggests that the short story cycle has ‘the advantages of the integration and interconnection of a novel and the intensity and compression of a short story.’1 ‘Short story cycles’ may be the most common term for collections of linked short stories, but they have also been dubbed ‘novels-in-stories,’ ‘composite novels’ and, simply, ‘linked story collections.’
Robert Graham

30. Structure — What Is It Good For?

Abstract
Few people would set out on a trek across the Sahara without a map or a compass. Only a fool would build an office block without plans. And nobody would build anything without foundations, a means of supporting the building’s outer shell. I would not attempt to write a novel without knowing where it was going, without something to support and guide the characters.
Gareth Creer
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