Fiction Craftsmanship

Later today, I will be offering my workshop on fiction craftsmanship at the Palette and the Page in Elkton, Maryland. The workshop is intended for fiction writers who want to improve their skills.

Each time I do the workshop, I am struck again by the contrast between the techniques that make for good fiction and those best for nonfiction. Fiction, a form of literary writing, is an art and depends for its success on the creativity of the writer. Nonfiction is more like a profession, with brevity and clarity its most important virtues. Even the editing rules for fiction are different from those for nonfiction. The differences are small—e.g., whether to put a space before and after an em dash (you don’t in literary writing), when and how to use commas—but important enough to get one’s work rejected.

The final editing authorities for literary writing and journalism are different. The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2003) is the rulebook for literary writing including fiction; The Associated Press Stylebook (The Associated Press, 2010) lays down the law for journalism. Both are thick volumes (957 and 465 pages, respectively) and spectacularly detailed.

But editing rules are a small part of the difference between the two kinds of writing. Journalistic writing demands simple, straightforward, focused prose, whose purpose is to convey information. The goal of literary writing, on the other hand, is to entertain and create beauty. That means its creators are given much wider boundaries on what is proper.

My own fiction in the six books and seventeen short stories now published depends more than most on telling of events that actually happened. I fictionalize the story by attributing the actions described to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I knew. For example, every event related in my novel Last of the Annamese, the story of the fall of Saigon, actually happened.

Because fiction is an art, my writing borrows from poetry many techniques and devices. I search for the right word to create the emotional flavor needed in a moment of the story. I vary the size and structure of sentences more according to the logic of music than that of grammar. I create images with words to move readers.

As a result, when I offer my workshop on fiction craftsmanship, I emphasize that the rules I’m stressing will not result in successful fiction—only creativity will do that. All the application of fiction craftsmanship will do is avoid immediate rejection for failure to follow the rules.

The class is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. at the Palette and the Page, 120 East Main Street, Elkton, MD 21921; (410) 398-3636. If you’d like to attend, call and let the proprietors know.

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