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Teaching the Unteachable

Book #8 for 2011: Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
Book #9 for 2011: Characters & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card
Book #10 for 2011: Plot by Ansen Dibell

When I was younger, I dabbled quite a bit in writing fiction. The result included four science fiction novels (one of which I sold twice, but which never appeared because both publishers folded or changed editorial hands before the book could come out), eleven books in the Hardy Boys series and three YA mysteries in a series that I can assure you you’ve never heard of. In those days, I was of the firm belief that fiction was not something that could be taught or even learned by anything other than example. To figure out how to write fiction, you had to read fiction, and the more fiction you read the better.

I still think this is largely true, though I’ve come over the years to suspect that my conviction that fiction couldn’t be taught was too rigid. I think there are certain rules — or perhaps, more properly, suggestions — that can be laid down by experienced authors to less experienced authors to provide direction to their work and that even more experienced authors can profit from reading about them. When I noticed that my library had a section of books on writing fiction, I decided that maybe there were a few more things about the subject that I wanted (and perhaps even needed) to learn and so I chose three of the books at random to read. (This was an interruption of my ongoing reading of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which I now plan to resume and will discuss in a later post.)

Despite their titles, which suggest that each of the above books is about something completely different, each is actually about the same thing: the development of plot and character in the creation of story. In a sense, these are the only things that a book on writing fiction can be about (except perhaps for prose style, which was the subject of another book at the library that I may come back to later). Although the authors of the second and third books try, there’s no way that a discussion of character can be completely divorced from a discussion of plot (or vice-versa), because the two elements of storytelling are too closely intertwined and neither can exist apart from the other. Nonetheless, each book looks at this subject — call it character/plot development — from a different viewpoint and with a different emphasis.

These books are all part of a series published by Writer’s Digest Books in the late 80s and early 90s. All of the authors have taught writing and/or literature and by coincidence each has written and published science fiction, though I didn’t choose the books for that reason. My guess as to why science fiction writers may be overly represented in a series of books about writing fiction is that they may be among the last authors who take all types of fiction, from the popular to the literary, with equal seriousness and therefore can discuss writing in a way that is applicable to a wider spectrum of writers. But that’s just a guess on my part.

Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles & Ends isn’t really about beginnings, middles and ends. Rather, she uses the chronological structure of a piece of fiction as a convenient framework for discussing how various aspects of character and plot should be introduced into a story. I especially liked her discussion of the role of the first two scenes in a story (and, like all the authors here, she is discussing both short stories and novels). The discussion is concise, filled with suggestions and examples, and it’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this part of the book without having some fairly concrete ideas about writing a story of their own. In fact, one of the things I most enjoyed about Kress’s book is that she is able to discuss fiction simultaneously on the abstract and concrete levels, which gives her suggestions both wide applicability and immediate utility. You could apply her story breakdown to almost any kind of fiction while still feeling as though Kress is guiding your hand fairly precisely through the process.

Orson Scott Card’s book is about inventing characters and is considerably longer than the Kress book, but I came away with the sense that much more of what he had to say was already obvious to me as a reader and would be obvious to any other reasonably eclectic reader of fiction. The best part of the book concerns authorial viewpoint (a subject that all three writers tackle) and is rather impressively exhaustive in the range of possible viewpoints that he discusses, from first-person narration to omniscient author to limited third-person viewpoint, with a number of shadings in between. He discusses the uses, advantages and disadvantages of each and supplies extensive examples from his own prose. And while I could probably sum the whole discussion up into two sentences — use either first-person narration or limited-third person in your fiction and don’t switch viewpoint characters unless there’s a clear narrative break — that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading Card’s more detailed overview, if only to learn what those terms mean.

Ansen Dibell (a pseudonym for the late Nancy Ann Dibble, a literature professor turned professional writer who must have been one of the last women who felt it was necessary to take a male-sounding penname when writing science fiction) writes about the construction of story and does an impressive job of it. Much of what she has to say struck me as non-obvious but quite sensible and if some of it seems a bit idiosyncratic, less a set of guidelines than some ideas that might work better for some writers than for others, I came away feeling that parts of the discussion were superb. For instance, I liked her idea of creating parallel characters in stories (for instance, Marley and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) who mirror each other so perfectly that when one of those characters has a life experience or makes a decision that the other doesn’t the importance of that deviation is made starkly obvious by the difference it makes between their lives. It’s a technique I hope to try one day.

If you have to choose only one of these books to read before the next NaNoWriMo, I recommend the Kress. It’s not only the shortest but I felt that she packed a better-rounded view of the writing process into 109 pages than the other authors did into longer volumes, though in part that’s because she gave herself a more comprehensive subject to write on. But it’s also clear that Kress is as conversant with literary fiction as with popular fiction (this also seems true of Dibell though somewhat less of Card) and this makes her crisp discussion of story structure useful to would-be writers who would like to write one, the other or both. And she provides exercises you can apply to your own fiction to see how well you’re meeting the expectations she sets for you in the text. I plan to reread it and take notes.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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