by Janet Burroway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Janet Burroway is quite an accomplished author. She wrote eight novels, plays, poetry, essays, texts for dance, and children’s books and recently received the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing
Her seminal book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman 2003), is the most widely used creative writing text in America. It is also one of the first writing how-to books I ever bought as part of the first writing class I ever took, at a community college years ago. I devoured the book, surprised there were so many rules and guidelines that informed what I’d thought would be more journaling than genius. By the end of the class, I knew exactly how much I didn’t know, but at least I had this book to unscramble my brain.
A note before proceeding: I used the sixth edition–she’s up to the ninth. Some things may have changed and at some point, I will decide to invest the almost $100 to update. But not yet.
Janet Burroway is detailed, specific, with examples of good and bad, as well as exercises to develop a writer’s craft. It includes chapters on the process (do what works for you–I like that sort of freedom, where whatever I do is right as long as I do it), showing and telling, characterization, setting, atmosphere, POV, metaphors and similar (and allegory and symbolic choices), theme and revision. Burroway’s book is over 400 pages and she uses each one wisely.
Each writing process chapter includes valuable pieces:
- core discussion based on Burroway’s experience and expertise, as well as lots of quotes and ideas specific to the chapter topic from successful writers
- one or more essay-sort of article from a renowned author on the same subject (usually a few pages)
- suggestions for discussion–appropriate for a writing class or workshop
- writing exercises–both individual and collaborative
Here are ten Big Ideas I got from this book:
- “Julie Alvarez [an accomplished writer] begins the day by reading first poetry, then prose, by her favorite writers ‘to remind me of the quality of writing I am aiming for’ (love this idea. I’ve adopted it.)
- “Any discipline or indulgence that actually helps nudge you into a position facing the page is acceptable” (Burroway includes journaling, freewriting, clustering, more)
- “‘Almost all good stories are sad because it is the human struggle that engages us readers and listeners the most’ (from Robert Morgan)”–and here I am, always looking for the happy ending.
- This is how she explains the difference between plot and story: “A ‘story’ is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A ‘plot’ is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.”
- “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details–these are the life of fiction.”
- “…almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” (Burroway quotes John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction”)
- “In prose, on the whole, the rhythm is all right if it isn’t clearly wrong.”
- “Though critics often praise literature for exhibiting characteristics of the individual, the typical, and the universal all at the same time, I don’t think this is of much use to the practicing writer.” (Burroway is discussing the difficulty of creating unique characters readers haven’t met before who also possess characteristics readers universally relate to.)
- “Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logic to emotion.”
- “The idea that is proposed, supposed, or speculated about in a fiction may be simple, and idealistic, like the notion in Cinderella that the good and beautiful will triumph. Or it may be profound and unprovable, like the theme in Oedipus Rex that man cannot escape his destiny but may be ennobled in the attempt. Or it may be deliberately paradoxical and offer no guidelines that can be used in life, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where the heroine, in order to adhere to her principles, must follow advice given on principles less sound than her own.”
- (a bonus tip) “…coherence in the world [an author] creates is constituted of two concepts he holds, which may be in conflict: one is his world view, his sense of the way the world is; and the other is his sense of morality, the way the world ought to be.” Burroway quotes Rust Hills)
That’s just poking the camel’s nose under the tent. Wait till you read the entire book.
There is a 7th and 8th edition out with lots of new material. If you’re buying this for the first time, I’d recommend you buy the most recent version. Janet seems to get an update out every few years.
UPDATE: After I published this, I was contacted by a journalist who was writing a profile on Burroway for the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal. He asked me to clarify how Burroway’s books evolved my thinking as a writer. Here’s how I answered him:
There’s an honesty to her book I find refreshing. Where some writer how-to books–and I’ve read quite a few–are designed to be motivational as much as instructive, Burroway focuses on helping writers improve their craft. Her pedagogy, the examples she selects, are objective and evidence-based, specific to her topics, building on each other until the reader has a solid foundation on which to create his/her writing future.
More tips from writers:
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.