A Review of 6 Books on the Craft of Fiction

Here’s the skinny on six of the “how-to” books for fiction writers in my bookcase – three on fiction generally and three on crime fiction. In no particular order, other than general fiction first:

Writing Fiction – A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

A great text for new writers and for any writer who wants a refresher. This book has chapters devoted to characterization, setting, scenes, plot and structure, point of view, theme, literary devices and revision. The text outlines and explains particular techniques, includes short stories that illustrate the techniques, and provides writing exercises at the end of each chapter. There is also an extensive list of resources for writers. This is one of the two texts that kept me company through my MFA program. It’s dog-eared, highlighted, and well loved.

Deepening Fiction – A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers, Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren.

Another excellent text, this is the second of the craft texts that I carted around during my classes (and beyond). I plastered it with post-it notes and page markers. This text is divided into three parts: the craft, an anthology of stories, and materials on the writing process and life. You’ll also find a glossary and suggestions for further readings. The craft section treats the various elements of fiction (character, POV, plot, scene, setting, dialogue and revision) in more detail than Writing Fiction, and assumes a basic facility with the underlying concepts. Each topic contains an analysis and discussion of illustrative stories, as well as exercises focused on the techniques.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott.

The subtitle of this wonderful book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, and that’s exactly what you get. All delivered in Anne Lamott’s chatty, humorous manner. You might want to read this book just for fun. But be careful – you’ll be reading along, giggling and having a great time, and before you know it, Lamott’s taught you more than a few things about writing, writing groups, publication and survival. How can you not love a book about writing that has chapters like “Shitty First Drafts”, “Broccoli” and “School Lunches”? How can you not feel an affinity with a woman who tells her writing students to “listen to your broccoli and the broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Or who describes the inner critic as Radio Station KFKD (aka K-f… well, you sound it out). I rest my case.

Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel – how to knock ‘em dead with style, Hallie Ephron.

This is an interactive text, divided into four sections – planning, writing, revising, and selling – followed by resources for mystery writers. The list of resources is very good and includes organizations, conferences, contests and guidebooks. Each chapter begins with a straight-forward, easy to understand discussion of a particular element (for example, point of view or how to handle reflection), followed by examples for analysis, on the spot exercises, and follow-up assignments. The book breaks writing a mystery into 22 chapters, plus 3 for revising and 3 for selling the finished product – small bites, easily digested.

Writing Mysteriesa Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton.

One of the more dog-eared books in my bookcase, this book is a series of articles written by published crime writers. It covers preparation, the process, and specialties (such as writing mysteries for young readers, medical thrillers, true crime, short stories and so on). The section on preparation covers everything from rules to research to schedules. The section on process covers characters, outlines, point of view, plots, dialogue, pacing, revision, working with agents, and more. My favourite chapters include “How to Write Convincing Dialogue,” “Clues, Red Herrings, and Other Plot Devices,” and, being the rule-lover and rule-fearer that I am: “The Rules and How to Bend Them.”

How to Write a Damn Good ThrillerA Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters, James N. Frey.

The author equates writing a thriller with “riding a bobsled down Mount Everest” and aims to give you everything you need in order to take your reader along for the ride. His approach to the “how-to” side of thrillers is to develop a thriller (villain, hero, plot) as you read through the text. This works well because the examples of various techniques all relate to the same set of facts, making it easier to understand how a thriller is assembled. This book is very useful even for those of us who don’t write thrillers because many of Frey’s lessons apply generally to crime fiction, or fiction generally. In particular, his chapter “All About Voice and Viewpoint and Other Cool Stuff” is an excellent discussion of point of view and voice. And “How to Make the Reader Dream the Fictive Dream” has some great tips on connecting with the reader or connecting the reader to your story.

If you have used these texts, or others, as guides for writing fiction or crime fiction, I’d be interested to hear your views. And I’m always on the look-out for new texts to help me improve as a writer — so let me in on your secret best resource!

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About Charlotte Morganti

Charlotte Morganti has been a burger flipper, beer slinger, lawyer, and seasonal chef de tourtière. And, always, a stringer-together-of-words. In addition to her law degree, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction appears in Tahoma Literary Review and The Whole She-Bang 2. Her first novel, The Snow Job, was a finalist for Crime Writers of Canada’s Unhanged Arthur award in 2014 for the best unpublished crime novel. She lives on the west coast of Canada with her husband and the quirky characters who populate her fiction.