“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs. As a result, most of the essays are directed at other college writing teachers, particularly those teaching undergraduates. This reduces the book’s value for the working writer.

Second, while all of the authors are published, many are award winners or New York Times best-sellers, and a few are big names in literary fiction (John Barth, Alberto Ríos, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley), because of their literary backgrounds, they pay scant attention to the genres besides “literary.” Further, the essayists assume that readers will be familiar with the predominantly literary stories and novels they refer to. Academics likely are, but writers in other-than-literary genres may not be, which makes the references less valuable.

Third, the authors tend to focus on short-story writing, with an occasional aside regarding poetry or novels. This is also not a surprise, given that academic schedules are not well suited to teaching students how to write book-length works. There simply isn’t time in a single semester, to say nothing of a quarter, to work on more than a few chapters of a long work. And in my experience, each class will insist on students starting at the beginning of a piece, even if the student writer is multiple chapters into their draft.

Finally, because the book was written in the late 1990s, before the advent of Web 2.0, there’s no discussion of electronic publishing, doing research online, etc. The final essay, on submitting pieces for publication not only focuses (again) on literary magazines, it can’t help but give what is now outdated guidance on how to find markets and submit queries and stories. And the author’s advice to go to literary parties to meet editors, and/or have a big-name author suggest your work to one of those editors, is simply unreasonable for many writers.

On the plus side, the book does focus on matters of craft. Major sections include articles on characterization; point of view; plot, structure, and narrative; and style and voice. There are even a couple pieces on revising and editing.

So while Creating Fiction is certainly not a bad book, especially when compared with some of the others I’ve read and reviewed, its value is significantly limited for many authors.

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