Review of Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction
This book is primarily a text for aiding fiction writers as they explore the various aspects of their craft. The preface states that this book “attempts to guide the student writer from first impulse to final revision” (xi). That the text is in its sixth printing should give some indication as to its success and usefulness as a classroom textbook for creative writing classes.
In summary, the book is organized into nearly a dozen chapters focusing on the key components of fiction writing. Burroway begins with the writing process and proceeds to plot, showing and telling, characterization, setting and atmosphere, point of view, comparison, theme and finally, revision. Every chapter ends with several example short stories, directed questions about those stories, and several writing exercises for both individual and group activity.
The first chapter examines process techniques such as journal keeping and clustering before moving into the question of how to select subject matter. Some of these techniques receive more attention than others with clustering having several pages and example diagrams (6-8). She does, however, stress that different writers have different approaches, and “The variety of authors’ habits suggests that there is no magic to be found in any particular one” (2).
After discussing ways by which other writers select subject matter, Burroway gives six suggestions for situations that can generate the basis for a story such as exploring a scenario that can only have bad resolutions or trying to draw connection between two seemingly unrelated events (13-4).
Chapter two takes a long look at plot and structure. Burroway quickly explains her vocabulary and launches into a thorough examination of the traditional story arc; she even goes so far as to apply the form to the well-known tale of Cinderella and give a diagram of the story arc (40). Following this explanation, she discusses the differences in plot development and pacing in short stories and novels and gives a lot of weight to Poe’s concept of the short story as the best form for creating “the single effect” and having the greatest emotional impact on a reader (47). She does, though, encourage writers to experiment with forms to discover where their strengths lie and where they will need to practice their craftsmanship.
The chapter about showing and telling is mostly devoted to detail: writing it, selecting salient details, and precise language especially when writing about emotion. Much of this part is done by examples of what Burroway believes to be great writing with details. From this point, she defines and explains filtering, active voice, and prose rhythm as well as how to cut down on the former one and achieve the latter two. These three subject are related to verb choice and being careful in the selection, presentation, and variety of each line of prose. Here, as it is many places, her underlying theme appears to be that high-caliber writing requires a lot of hard work.
Both chapters four and five deal with characterization, but this element is split to look at different aspects of it. Chapter four examines many fiction writing basics about characterization: credibility, growth (or lack thereof), and complexity. Each of these sub-components receives about a page of inquiry and shows how a reader gleans this sort of information about characters from word choice, description, and so on. Now, Burroway explains direct and indirect characterization before spending the rest of chapter four on indirect methods of characterization: authorial interpretation and interpretation by another character (127). She buttresses her views of these methods with lengthy examples which she dissects to show how they work. Chapter five deals first with direct characterization—appearance, action, dialogue, and thought—in much the same way as authorial interpretation and interpretation by another character were handled. The primary difference being the time spent on dialogue as Burroway looks into the nuances of ways to write dialogue (162-3), how to make dialogue into the story’s action by allowing for the possibility of change (167), and the importance of subtext or what goes unsaid in dialogue. Again, much of this is laid plain by Burroway and her example analysis before she proceeds to give a page of pointers about how to write a group or crowd.
The chapter on setting includes what Burroway calls “Narrative Time,” and she devotes half the chapter to it. The first half uses several examples and she explains how they cause the setting to be a character, ways setting can reflect or influence mood, how whole settings can be symbolic, and even ways in which alien setting can be made familiar and vice versa . The chapter’s latter half deals with the movement of time in fiction and how and why and author could control it. As she says, “In fiction, the concern is constant time , the period covered in the story” (210). Much of this section makes references to movie and video terminology such as “flashback” and “slow motion.” Most of these techniques she links back to previous discussions such as when she writes about slow motion “to point out a correlation between narrative time and significant detail” (214). Burroway starts off chapter three with an analysis of significant detail.
As with characterization, point of view is handled in chapters seven and eight. After a brief but helpful review of point of view types she begins to look at how each one answers the questions “who speaks,” “to whom,” and “in what form” (255). Her progress is methodical with plenty of examples. The is only a brief digression concerning the types of third person and what constitutes an opaque character—one to whom the reader is not given access (259). Chapter eight deviates from the previous chapter’s presentation by focusing on broader questions of the kinds of distance and limitations of particular points of view. The question of distance is divided into discussions and examples of authorial distance, spatial distance (borrowing from film vocabulary), tone and irony. The question of limitations is dominated by the idea of the unreliable narrator, specifically in the first person. The matter of unreliability in other view points is allotted less than a page (298).
In chapter nine, Burroway deals with comparison in little over ten pages by focusing on metaphors, similes, allegory, and symbols. Nearly a third of this space is portioned out to metaphoric faults such as clichés, over use of similes, and obscure references (328-32). Less time is given to how to write effective metaphors, but copious examples are provided.
Theme, likewise, has a brief chapter which is reduced to Burroway’s belief that theme is typically something that writer’s develop as they go along and address consciously in revision (364). Her argument for this standpoint is that fiction isn’t like writing an essay where one starts with a thesis and argues for it (363). Recurrent images or ideas, however, she believes may be a good way to get at a theme.
The final chapter discusses revision. She gives some strategies and questions to ask when looking over a draft, but devotes a good portion of this chapter to the workshop using readers’ critical feedback. Burroway says, “It might seem dismaying that you should see what your story is about only after you have written it” (398). Her statement ties in with the previous chapter about theme, but she encourages writers and claims the experience of discovering such a pattern is rewarding. She also says precise criticism is what a writer should look for, especially in a workshop because it allows the writer to focus on real potential problems (399). The chapter ends with several authors giving examples of revisions they’ve done and how those situations worked out for them.
The text concludes with several useful appendices. The first is an informal glossary of different kinds of fiction and the strengths and weaknesses of each. She then includes a list for further reading; it is akin to an annotated bibliography. In this list, Burroway suggests everyone from Aristotle to Ursula Le Guin. She also provides contact information for writers’ services and writers’ guides.
This book succeeds as a guide for fiction writers. Not only does she examine in great detail the essential elements of fictional prose it also deals with the troublesome aspects of prewriting and revision. Burroway is not especially heavy handed and uses her in-chapter selections to great effect. While many of her example texts are expertly chosen, Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” in chapter two and Pamela Painter’s “Dud” at the end are particularly impressive selections, some others don’t seem to fit as well. For instance, “Silver Water” by Amy Bloom is a good story, but why it is an example of plot and not in either of the chapters on point of view is a mystery. On the whole, her end of chapter exercises, though, provide an excellent launching point for the reader to try his or her hand at fiction while keep a particular focus at the craft issue at hand. So even if Burroway’s particular choices may seem puzzling, the range of exercises she gives is truly impressive. No chapter has less than four exercises, and it is the shortest chapter, the one on theme, that has the fewest (393-4). Her chapters are also peppered with off-set quotations from a variety of authors giving advice on the topic at hand. These quotations provide color and alternative voices in the text which refreshing for the reader and also helps Burroway in the same way that citing sources in an essay or review does.
That Burroway doesn’t take much of a stand on particular issues may be an asset or a liability depending upon the instructor and the type of class being conducted. She seems to consider all elements fairly equal in weight, despite some topics being large enough to require two chapters. She does not, however, deal at length with post-modern fiction that purposefully omits, alters, or ridicules many of these components of fiction. The area where her even-handed tone may be an inconvenience is when dealing with theme. She talks abstractly about the question of truth and fiction as “recreating the experience of revelation” (360). At no point, though, does she expressly argue that fiction has a moral purpose or even that ethical consideration should be a part—big or small—of the writer’s consideration. The most she says is that “Literature is a persuasive art” (359). Burroway’s stance can be refreshing or confusing or the fiction student who has read John Gardner, for instance, or John Steinbeck who insist there must be some level of ethical consideration in fiction. In this way, her book offers no advice to teachers or students who will certainly encounter stories that shock, offend, or are technically effective but espouse or endorse a repugnant or distasteful viewpoint such as denying the Holocaust or supporting the lynching of African-Americans.
It is fair to say, then, that Burroway has little bias. Clearly, she privileges fiction because the book is solely devoted to it. She does not, however, make the claim that fiction is better than other forms of writing or other forms of art. In the chapter on theme she says that moral concern has a closer tie to language than other art forms like music or painting (358). Even this assertion, though, is delivered in a neutral way. Burroway’s voice does not seem to come down as a commandment because her tone is conversational but neutral and, as suggested before, she allows for other voices, mostly through the offset quotations and frequent citation of other writers in each chapter.
The audience for this book is fiction-writing students, and no pretense is made otherwise. The depth and coverage of information appears designed for fiction students of beginning or intermediate level. More advanced students, it would be assumed, would already have a working knowledge of many of these craft elements. The proliferation of exercises and easy layout of the book, though, make it respectable reference that can also provide a means of working through writer’s block or one of those periods of ennui or exhaustion that can weigh down a writer.
The biggest strengths of this book are its exercises—for the reasons previously stated—and its solid collection of fiction. While some stories don’t always seem to fit as an example of the chapter’s focus, each short story is worth reading on its own merits. As a collection of fiction, this text is worth a look, and it adds to its longevity as a book to come back to as a reference. Even without the discussion questions Burroway provides, the fiction can be a launching point for discussions of craft. On a related note, the range of fiction is impressive and can easily give ideas and encouragement for student writers. From traditional pieces like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” to the magical realism of Marquez’s “Eyes of a Blue Dog,” to short shorts like Sandra Cisneros’s “Linoleum Roses,” the breadth and variety of fiction is on par with most conventional short story compilations.
The most notable weakness of Burroway’s book is its apparent reticence to grapple with post-modernism. Aside from a short paragraph about metafiction in the appendix (413), virtually nothing is said about this trend in literature. For many contemporary readers, even at a beginning level, this omission will seem strange. With so much done to impress readers with the Protean forms and subject matter of fiction, it is almost unbelievable that Burroway would leave out some of the most mutable and self-conscious fiction produced in the last few decades. John Barth and Italo Calvino are conspicuously absent as is their work. It would be better for Burroway to address this even if it is to say she believes a writer should master traditional modes of fiction before moving to post-modernism. Future readers should hope for this matter to be rectified in future editions of this text especially if post-modern styles of fiction remain as influential as they have proven to be in recent years.
Overall, Writing Fiction should be strongly considered as a primary text for an introductory to intermediate level fiction writing class. The quality of its content as well as the effectiveness of its organization makes it a text worth having. It combines some of the best features of an impressive short story collection as well as a manual of craft elements with its only real weakness being an aversion to contemporary, non-traditional modes of fiction.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 6th Edition. New York: Longman, 2003.
© 2011 Seth Tomko