The Classic College Textbook on the Fiction-Writing Craft (The Current Edition)

★ Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition) (Paperback) by Janet Burroway, reviewed by C. J. Singh on, copy posted January 14, 2012 (43 of 44 people found the review helpful.)–  See all my reviews 


In the current edition, more than half of the 22 stories are new, including works by contemporaries like Stuart Dybek, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Ron Hansen, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz. A welcome return are short-shorts, one of the highlights of the sixth edition that were dropped in the seventh. Also, the new edition features a more detailed discussion of the revision process: it presents the early and final drafts of a short story, “Keith, by Ron Carlson, an established writer and professor of creative writing at UC Irvine.In the preface to the eighth edition, Burroway notes that “the idea of a text for writing fiction is itself problematic. Unlike such subjects as math and history, where a certain mass of information needs to be organized and conveyed, the writing of fiction is more often a process of trial and error–the learning is perpetual and, paradoxically, the writer needs to know everything at once. If a text is too prescriptive, it’s not true to the immense variety of possibilities; if it’s too anecdotal, it may be cheering but is unlikely to be of use.” Excellent criterion, emerging from the author’s decades of writing and teaching experience. This edition, like the seventh and sixth, engages and isn’t too prescriptive.

Burroway clearly privileges literary fiction over genre fiction in this as well as in the previous four editions. (In her definition, genre fiction comprises detective story, science fiction, fantasy fiction, romance, adventure, spy, horror, and thriller.) “Writing literary fiction can teach you how to write good genre fiction, writing genre fiction does not teach you how to write good literary fiction–does not teach `how to write,’ by which I mean how to be original and meaningful in words.” Agreed, but why, then, is the book’s title not “Writing Literary Fiction”?

The seventh edition, like the sixth, includes more than twenty short stories, most of them by contemporary writers such as Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, and Charles Baxter that were also in the sixth edition. The seventh edition’s major shortcoming is the dropping of short-shorts. The sixth edition included short-shorts by Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Tallent, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Mary Robison, Lydia Davis, and Grace Paley among others. (Inspired by the short-shorts in the sixth edition, I wrote five short-shorts, all of which were published in ZYZZYVA literary magazine, Vol XXXIII.2). I found drafting short-shorts a fast-track to teaching myself the basics of fiction-writing craft.

Comparing the contents of this edition with the previous four editions, I see that Burroway has experimented with different chapter sequences. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions, plot discussion was placed in chapter 2; in the seventh and eighth editions, plot discussion is relegated to chapter 7. Very well, as the writer “needs to know everything at once” anyway, I can understand this experimentation. My preference is the earlier placement of plot, in chapter 2 — especially for self-teaching.

In the previous four editions a full chapter was devoted to theme and introduced in the very first chapter as follows: “The process of discovering, choosing, and revealing the theme of your story begins as early as a first freewrite and continues, probably, beyond publication. The theme is what your story is about and what you think about it, its core and the spin you put on it…. Because of this comprehensive nature of theme, I have placed the discussion of it in chapter 10, after each of the individual story elements have been addressed….But this is not entirely satisfactory, since each of those elements contribute to the theme as it unfolds. You may want to skip ahead to take a look at that chapter.” Agreed, but why, then, the eighth edition omits the 28-page chapter on theme and instead condenses the topic of theme to a mere 2 pages as part of the chapter on revision?

For teaching yourself to write literary fiction, I recommend: beginning with Burroway’s “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft”; next Burroway’s “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft”; followed by Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s “Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers.” (See my amazon listmania list “Writing Fiction: Top Ten Books.”)



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