17 Aug

Dog-eared and loved

Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, tops my list for writers of fiction or memoir.  I have two editions, the third (1992) and the seventh (2007).  There’s now an eighth, that sells for $66. 

It’s possible, however, to buy an earlier edition for much less, and any edition will do.  (Try checking for used books at your favorite independent bookstore.)  They’re easy to find since it’s been used in countless college writing programs.  I found my first one twenty years ago in the used books section at the OSU bookstore.  

“There are a few lucky souls,” Burroway writes, “for whom the whole process of writing is easy, for whom the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle perpetually over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the world at large an intrusion on their good time at the computer.  But you and I are not among them.”

She’s definitely speaking for me!  ANY excuse will keep me from beginning the first draft of anything.  Somehow, over the years, I’ve learned that getting through the pain of that awful first draft is the only thing that will lead me to the revising, the part I love.

Chapter headings:   

  • The writing process
  • Showing and Telling
  • Characterization
  • Fictional Place
  • Fictional Time
  • Story Form, Plot, and Structure
  • Point of View
  • Theme
  •  Revision

Every section in this book contains writing examples.  Discussion questions follow these.  Then, come the exercises that give us a chance to practice.  (My former students will recognize some of these.)

My friend Naomi used this book with her writing group,  going chapter by chapter, doing the exercises and discussing them.  Took many months.

In the first chapter, Burroway advises keeping a daily  journal (where no editor can see and make comments), doing free-writing (like doing scales on the piano to keep the writing muscle strong), and clustering (which frees up the mind to make meaningful connections).  Ten minutes a day will lead to twenty or thirty, and suffices to get words down.  Then, if you’re like me, you can go through the rest of the day saying, “I AM a writer.  I wrote this morning.”

Snarky, but it works!


                                — has to do with showing and telling.  

Details — using lots of them, she says, will lure the reader into the world of your book.   But these can’t be Lands End Catalog details.  We need to select the best ones.  What does she mean by “best ones”? 

CONCRETE details that appeal to the senses of smell, taste, touch, vision, and hearing.  My friend Ken assessed each of his pages in terms of the “The Smell Factor.”  He tried to get at least one smell onto every page. 

 SIGNIFICANT details that convey an idea or judgment.  For example: “The windowsills were painted green” is concrete because it’s visual, but it’s not especially significant.  Try this: The sills were a peeling, pea green.  (The reader “gets it” that there’s decay here.)  Of course, when you go back to make your sentences more active, you might write: Strips of dull green paint hung from the window sills.  It’s obvious that this place is going to be a fixer-upper, and we didn’t TELL it; we SHOWED it.

Writing Prompt 

(with thanks to Janet Burroway):  

Look in the mirror.  Jot down all the details of your face, hair, mouth, eyes, etc.  Make your details as concrete as possible, using the five senses. 

Decide which of those details will convey how you would like others to see you.  Do you want to be seen as sophisticated?  Intelligent?  Younger and full of fun?  Older and wiser? 

Select the details that will convey this picture to others and leave out the rest. 

Write a short description of this face, using the “best” details and leaving out any adjectives that simply tell that you are older and wiser or whatever. 

Share this with a friend to see if the details you chose did the work you intended.  
Imagine significant details for each of your characters, this time, describing more than his or her face.  How about posture, actions, voice?  

When you write in this way you are in collaboration with your readers. When we describe everything for them, readers miss part of the fun.  When they can draw their own conclusions from a few significant details, we’ve entered a grand partnership.  

Good writing?  Yes!

Anyone out there who has used this book?   What’s YOUR  favorite part?  Please share!



  1. wordstitcher August 18, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    I bought this book years ago on your recommendation, Anne. Why have a couple dozen writing books when this one covers it all?

  2. Naomi August 18, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I thought this book was gone, but after I read your piece I went to the bookcase and there it was! An old friend, with my ancient notes in it. I feel like I rediscovered part of myself that’s been lost. Will I now work in it? Unsure, but hopeful.

  3. mfrances stilwell October 31, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    I thought there was a letter from you I hadnt read. this book looks very interesting. For me, the first draft is the fun part …

    Hope you are doing OK. The story of how you detected a bulge in your swim suit was quite thought-provoking. I would be forever going to the doctor if I paid attention to every bulge, but now I do.


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