The Complete Writer: Learning to Write Fiction

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

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Chapter 23. Getting Started

John Gardner

This book is not the place to go into a lot of detail about how one writes a piece of fiction—a short story or a novel. Many resources can help get you started. One of the best is John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction. It’s for people who want to write literary fiction, but the principles he describes apply across the board. You can get a boxed set of all three of Gardner’s influential works on creative writing, in Kindle format. These include The Art of Fiction, On Writers and Writing, and On Moral Fiction.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is extremely useful for genre writers. In many instances, it also applies to more literary efforts. Spinning off the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, Vogler traces the links between myth and modern fiction and shows how you can engage that understanding in your writing.

For genre fiction, see any how-to published by Writer’s Digest Books, but more important: immerse yourself in your genre. Read a lot of your coveted genre: if you want to be a great science fiction writer, you’ve got to be a great science fiction reader. That’s true of fantasy, romance, erotica, crime and detective fiction, and all the other genres.

It’s amazing how many people who say they wanna be writers don’t read the kind of thing they think they want to write. People who show up at magazine writing workshops and sign up for college courses in magazine writing don’t read magazines. Those who say they want to get rich writing romance novels or detective stories don’t read romances or detective novels. To write this stuff, you need to read the stuff.

It’s much more useful to read and analyze the kind of things you want to read and write than to study how-to books about writing fiction. Joyce Carol Oates’s Telling Stories is a fine way to see how to do this. She provides advice and comment on writing and revising fiction interspersed with a large and entertaining collection of the real stuff. Another excellent tool: Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings’s anthology, Fictions, contains 1260 pages of high-quality short stories and novellas, along with instructions on how to read and analyze them critically. It also contains an appendix that lists entries by theme, so that if you’re interested in, say, coming of age as a theme for your own writing, you can find examples under the heading “Initiation and Maturation.”

Read a lot of your favorite literature: live your life in it.