03 May 2013

Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft, A Review

I'm going to come straight out and say that I am not in love with Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway.  There are multiple reasons for this, but the major one is simply that it carries a bunch of stock advice that can be found in other sources (often presented better) - HOWEVER, this book does have it all in one volume, and it tackles one particularly pernicious myth with admirable aplomb: namely, "Show, don't tell."  Which as veteran writers, we all know that bit of advice is, frankly, bullshit.

Janet Burroway gives excellent examples of published prose (by well regarded writers) in Chapter 2: Voice, which have some very tell-heavy elements.  The reason for the "show, don't tell" axiom is boredom.  If a writer completely eschews scene (showing) for summary (telling) then the reader is likely to get bored, because summary resolves tension too quickly.  For instance, if I were to summarize Misery by Stephen King, it would go something like this:

A famous writer gets in a car crash and is rescued by an obsessed fan.  After an attempt to escape, she breaks both of his ankles using a sledgehammer.  After a second attempt, she removes his left arm (so that he can still write).  In the end he escapes, but only barely.

So the breaking of body parts, likely caused you to shudder a bit, but there's not really tension there.  Which is why showing is important, but if an author doesn't summarize some things, then the book would never end (cf. anything by Melville).  John D. MacDonald (writer of the Travis McGee mystery series) is a mastery at summarizing things that don't really matter except to add ambiance, usually small talk.  Summary can still reveal character, but teachers don't want to read a bunch of really boring prose, so this mythical axiom has been past down through the ages.  Next time someone tells you, "show, don't tell," just substitute in, "This section bored me."  It's a more useful rubric.

The real strength of Imaginative Writing is that it covers all three major veins of creative writing (Creative Non-fiction, Fiction, and Poetry), and it has metric tons worth of writing exercises, and as Harlan Coben said in his WD interview, "This is a profession where quantity eventually creates quality."

This text was used as the main primer for 2 of my 3 major fiction writing courses during undergrad.  As a beginning primer, it's acceptable, but I still argue in favor of The Art of Dramatic Writing and others, but of course I've always aimed to be a novelist, and noveling is a hell of a thing to teach in one semester.  I imagine that's what graduate courses are for - I'll let you know when I take one.

So bottom line: If you want extensive exercises to stretch your craft: check this book out.  If you're satisfied with the exercises found in Gardner's The Art of Fiction, then move on.

Cheers, and as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any craft book recommendations, please leave them in the comments.
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