Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writing Fiction: Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1: Whatever Works: The Writing Process

I chose this "How to Book" for my 1st semester of the MFA Writing Popular Fiction program because "Many Genres: One Craft" (lovingly known now as MGOC) is a main text for other courses in the Seton Hill MFA program. I didn't want to repeat the same material, so here I am on Chapter 1.

Burroway starts out giving the aspiring writer some useful things to consider as s/he ponders putting words on the page, or more commonly on the screen. One of the first things she brings up is the usefulness of keeping a journal. She states to use journaling as a way to "give yourself permission to fail." I understand what she's saying but it sounds a bit lame to me. I mean, I don't need permission to fail. I can do it rather well. With style even. Still, her points are beneficial in that it's not so much WHAT I write, so long as I write every day.  And I think it should be something more than a Facebook post or a Tweet, although I'm poetic with those from time to time.

A journal allows me to capture some of the thoughts, and some of the experiences I've had throughout the day. People I meet have potential for characters in future books, etc.  For example, I go to surf often at a small little beach just north of Ventura called Mondos. There's a man there I see almost every time I go. He's built like I imagine a dwarf from Lord of the Rings to be.  He has "Gimli" hair, complete with the long beard, but he wears a wetsuit and rides on a longboard. He's graceful, and catches just about every wave he ever tries to take. One day, I started imagining him as a member of the dwarf species, but a subspecies that broke away from their earth dwelling brothers/sisters and took to the sea. I was embroiled so deep in the fanciful idea that when a large wave rose up in front of me without my brain registering it was there, I went tumbling in the froth, washed in the rinse cycle of the foaming wave.  Imagination can be dangerous sometimes.

Another area Burroway discusses is "freewriting", which is simply sitting down and writing whatever comes to mind. This is best done first thing in the morning, before the writer is really 'awake' in order to tap into that dream-functioning part of the brain. For me, what is more easily done is to sit down right after I wake and write about my dreams. I almost always remember them, at least for the first hour or two of waking. Every now and then they are so impressive that I never forget them. (I have childhood dreams/nightmares I still remember.) Sometimes I wish I had more time to put thoughts, ideas and concepts on a page. But life, for me, is not that kind. Time is precious, and its increments are a commodity I don't have enough of...not with a full time job, a family to care for, studies and other obligations.

Burroway describes how some writers are lucky enough to never have to "think" of a topic to write about. I suppose I'm very much like that. I can come up with anything that has story potential, and start writing.  The greatest dangers (for me) are: A. Losing interest in my story, poem, flash fiction and B. Starting something new before I've finished what I've started.  I've got a dozen or so short stories and novel pieces in a folder titled "Potentials" that would be dusty if electrons in a computer were pieces of paper.  They'd have coffee stains and wrinkles on them and might be piled into the bottom of an box. The greatest danger to them is a computer crash or some cyber-worm that decides to eat them.  Still, the parts and pieces of stories may come in handy in the future, so the folder remains there and grows.

Burroway's first chapter finishes with a few more items for the writer to consider. Things like being sure to have your work critiqued by others, forcing yourself to write even when the 'Muse' hasn't made an appearance to keep you company, and the benefit of workshops. She makes salient points that new writers should definitely pay attention to, because much of her highlighted areas are really writing "rules of conduct" that most of use abide by in the writing community. They are hints to help us get along on the prosey world.

Overall, I like Burroway's style of presentation. It is unpretentious and the first chapter is a writer's toolkit for getting started. As someone who didn't major in English or Creative writing, she hits some important points that I wish I'd known before I started writing novels, and I'm looking forward to the next chapters to see what she outlines next. 



  1. I owe you a beer for cluttering up your comments, but my computer is a POS. Sorry. Maybe two beers.

  2. Definitely two beers. One for you and one for me! :)
    And I'll share a cigar with you. ;)