Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fiction: art or craft?

You can buy innumerable books about how to write fiction. I have bookshelves full of them. Some help, but most are regurgitations of the same old stuff. The majority of these how-to books present a formulistic approach: If you get each of these elements right, you’ll have a bestseller. I beg to differ.

Neither too hard or too soft
I once bought three writing books simultaneously. The first was the bestselling text for college creative writing courses, the second was How to Write a Novel for Dummies, and the third was a middle-of-the -road advice book by a relatively successful novelist. The worst of the bunch was the college textbook which was all about mechanics and literary devices. Plot was reduced to paint-by-numbers. The Dummies book was a poor second. The actionable advice could have been adequately summarized on two typewritten pages. The middle-of-the-road book was by far the best of the breed and it has guided my book buying on writing from that point forward.

I’m biased. I believe storytelling is the most important aspect of fiction. Characterization is a close second, with plot a distant third. Literary devices are inconsequential until you have a compelling story.

There are great storytellers, great writers, and great storytelling writers. The first can be commercially successful, but eventually fade away. The second never gain a large audience. The third become immortal.

(Twain, Shakespeare, and Homer are but three examples.)

Raymond Chandler wrote, “all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.” The secret to mass appeal is engaging stories. 

Fiction may be art or craft, but it is certainly not engineering.

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