Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reviewing The Stuff of Fiction: Part 1

Scratch a writer and what do you get? You get a book about writing of course. If you've ever searched for books about fiction writing, you won't come up empty. You'll have the opposite problem. Some of these books, such as E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, are quite well-known. Other writers have contributed multiple entries to the genre. Consider John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, On Moral Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist. Even dead writers are not immune from having their say. Larry W. Phillips mined Hemingway's letters, interviews, and books for reflections on the craft and found enough material to publish Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on CraftLately I've been working through Douglas Bauer's The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft (2006). Bauer begins "[s]imply put, this book hopes to be of practical use to writers" (p. 1), and for the most part, it is. The first chapter centers on strategies for beginning a story. Using an example from a Grimm's fairy tale, he provides altered versions of the opening sentences to demonstrate how even minor changes can affect reader expectations and the amount of effort readers must expend to orient themselves to a story's landscape. Bauer argues that while no particular strategy is inherently superior, whether the narrator thrusts the reader into a scene of preexisting activity or suggests the work's thematic intent, it is paramount that the writer is conscious of how a particular opening strategy will impact the reader.

In the second chapter, Bauer begins by demystifying the sentence, arguing that prose should aim to create a profluent narrative in contrast to a line of poetry's "overt manipulation of language" (p. 32). The sentence is a tool for the writer, a "pack-mule" for conveying information and moving characters about, and not an end in itself. To be successful, sentences must convey mood, setting, and action with clarity, elegance, and beauty. Bauer writes that "the supreme success of sentences ... occurs when they combine their workaday responsibility with an intermittent, punctuating beauty" (p. 33). The challenge "is the calibration of when--at what interval--to let loose a moment of language" (p. 33) However, Bauer warns that those moments of poetic language must strive for effectiveness and not affectation. The language should point the reader to the physical and sensory world as it "focus[es] and clarif[ies] the narrative picture or its drama" (p. 36). I'll add to this review in my next post.

So what have I been doing besides reading about writing? I started George MacDonald's Lilith, a very strange but compelling fairy tale. I finished "Scapegoat" and sent it off to critters. I received critiques this week and have some ideas for revisions. (If you're looking for an ego boost, don't submit stories for critique.) I also revised "The Master and the Miller's Daughter" for submission. I'm working on a new story, "Red as Snow," inspired by some incidents from Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. And I'm still waiting to hear about the fate of "Gethsemane."