Fiction Craftsmanship

For years, I’ve been offering a class in what I call fiction craftsmanship. That’s the mechanical side of writing fiction—all the pesky little rules that distinguish literary writing from journalism. I recommend to participants that they consult The Chicago Manual of Style (The University of Chicago Press), now in its 17th edition. I caution them that they should not use The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the bible for journalists. The guidelines for literary writing are not the same as those for journalism.

I make a clear and precise distinction between creativity and craftsmanship (sometimes called technique). Both are required for successful and publishable fiction. Creativity can’t be learned; it’s inborn. But craftsmanship can. Even so, craftsmanship takes a lifetime of practice and learning, and it never ends—I’ll still be discovering new aspects of craftsmanship on my deathbed. Besides, the rules change over time.

The odd thing about craftsmanship is that it’s all but ignored in texts about writing. Early in my career, I took more than twenty classes in creative writing. Craftsmanship was only mentioned in passing. But every master writer has learned the craft to the point that it’s become second nature, always present, almost unconscious.

For me, the master craftsman in fiction is Hemingway. I profoundly disagree with his outlook on life, but nobody wrote better than he did. I still reread him from time to time just to study his technique.

More tomorrow.

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