Author: Janet Burroway
When I look for books on writing, I don’t want to be directed into my “inner self” or told how to access my nascent creativity. I don’t need to be told I’m “special” because I’m a writer. And most of all, I don’t need some know-it-all using a bunch of gardening metaphors and calling it advice.
For me, the best writing books are practical. One of the most useful guides I’ve come across in recent years is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. The book is currently in its ninth edition, so I’m not the only one who thinks Burroway is awesome. So what’s so great about her?
Giving practical advice isn’t too hard when you’re talking about style. Avoid the passive voice when you can use the active voice. Make sure your characters don’t all sound the same when they talk. Avoid using weird-ass dialogue tags like “hissed” and “shrieked” unless you’re in a sixth-grade writing seminar. But what about the really hard stuff like creating the story itself?
Most guides start breaking down at this point and give vague advice about “finding your voice” and “looking to your life experiences” to inspire you. Blah, blah, blah.
Burroway, however, knows her stuff. Here’s a bit of her most interesting advice about building conflict:
“The protagonist must want, and want intensely. The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger.”
This may sound like fluffy advice on the surface, but it’s not. Look at your most recent manuscript and ask yourself: “What does my character desire above all else?”
If you can’t answer that question, or if that desire isn’t evident in your writing, you have a fundamental problem with the story. Perhaps you came up with the plot before you created your characters, and the story never did feel right. Now you’ve written something that is “just okay,” but you can’t quite figure out where you went wrong.
Find that thing, the desire that motivates your character, and tape it to the side of your computer as you draft.
She also has some pretty good ideas about how to define the arc of your story:
“The stake over which wars are fought is usually a territory, and it’s important that this ‘territory’ in a story be as tangible and specific as the Gaza Strip.”
To illustrate her point, she uses “The Use of Force,” by William Carlos Williams. In that short story, a country doctor makes a house call to care for a sick child. Unfortunately, the four-year-old won’t cooperate. The entire story is about him trying to get her to open her mouth so he can see what the hell is going on in the back of her throat. The territory isn’t a continent or a lost Incan treasure. It’s a child’s mouth. And the story is amazing.
I used her advice to write my own scene in which the contested territory is a signature on a contract. Thinking of the scene as a fight over that territory helped me keep the pace tight while pulling the most out of the characters. When I was finished, I was shocked at how easy it was to create something really good. And never once did she tell me to check in with my inner self for inspiration.
Leslie Karen Lutz is a professional editor and specializes in developmental and line editing. She has worked with a variety of authors in multiple genres: horror, mystery, paranormal mystery, crime, romance, literary fiction, young adult, and memoir. Her clients have received literary awards and representation in leading literary agencies. A published poet, Leslie also has a MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Methodist University.
Visit her website at https://elliottbayediting.wordpress.com.
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©2015. Zetta Brown