Cover

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Title page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents

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Introduction

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pp. ix-xii

Because writing fiction is a complicated and confusing endeavor, writers like to pass along pithy quotes and metaphors that simplify the art, or at least make it seem more manageable. One of the most beloved of these quotes comes from E. L. Doctorow, who said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights...

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Part One: Scenes

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pp. 1-4

In a famous Seinfeld episode, George Costanza dates a woman who uses the phrase “yada yada yada” as a way of skimming over any part of a story she deems unworthy of relating in detail. At first, George appreciates the device...

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1. The Language of Sex

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pp. 5-19

Well, something has to come first, so we may as well start by talking about sex. For one thing, it might hook those of you who are reading only the first few pages of this on Amazon. Trust me, the rest of the book will be just as spicy...

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2. The Imagery of Violence

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pp. 20-33

As you’ve probably heard a million times, fiction is based on conflict, and in its most primitive guise this appears as violence. Certain genres, such as crime thrillers and horror novels, can’t do without it, but of course it appears in all kinds of literature, and I would guess that most writers...

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3. The Significance of Sports

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pp. 34-46

The subject of sports can be easy to dismiss as belonging to particular provinces of fiction, such as young adult romanticism (Matt Christopher’s Crackerjack Halfback and the like) or the literary baseball novel (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding), or works...

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4. Love, Endless and Otherwise

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pp. 47-60

At first it may not seem that the topic of this chapter fits in with the first three, since you won’t segregate love from the rest of your narrative as distinctly as you do scenes involving sex, violence, and sports. We think of love as an ongoing condition, so a portrait of a man in love...

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Part Two: Characters

As every creative-writing book, teacher, website, and freelance guru will tell you, character is the most significant element of traditional literary fiction. We need to pay special attention to the modifiers...

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5. What Do These People Look Like?: Part One

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pp. 63-79

We sometimes take for granted that a writer must master the art of describing a character’s physical presence. Many creative-writing books include exercises like “write a page that vividly depicts your protagonist’s teeth” or “describe your character as if you were talking to a police sketch artist.” True enough, a writer should be able to dash off an effective...

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6. An Interlude on Abnormality

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pp. 80-91

That last chapter argued that the physical image of a character may not stay with the reader for long, but that description still matters because it conjures up the reality of the character. I also pointed out that the techniques of character description remain the same regardless of what effects you intend for them to have. Why, you may then ask, did we get...

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7. What Do These People Look Like?: Part Two

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pp. 92-108

Writers normally want to present all their characters, great and small, with vividness and verisimilitude. This holds true, I should add, insofar as “character” refers to a person who interacts with the plot or protagonist, rather than to purely functional figures. In a sentence like “Hobbs walked on the broken...

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Part Three: Points of View

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pp. 109-112

We often hear that the narrator is the first character the writer creates, an assertion that implies two things: (1) the narrator acts as a character, even in the third-person mode, and (2) you need to make the selection of narrative voice your first priority...

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8. First-Person Imitations: Race, Gender, and Class

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pp. 113-127

In a first-person work, the author overtly pretends to think and write from the perspective of a different consciousness. Some writers mitigate the difficulty of this project by making their narrators sound a lot like the writers themselves, as in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Jeanette...

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9. First-Person Imitations: Children, Animals, and the Otherworldly

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pp. 128-142

In the last chapter, we looked at narrators who differ in a demographic sense from their authors, which may not represent too extreme a difference; like the authors, the narrators are adult human beings. Significantly (and maybe obviously), this means that the narrating characters...

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10. Surprise!

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pp. 143-154

To finish up with the topic of narrators who differ significantly from their authors, I’d like to veer into the matter of twist endings. Not all such endings use these kind of narrators, of course, but many of them do. As a method of delivering a surprise, some writers establish a supposedly...

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11. The Language of the Past

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pp. 155-170

Over the past few decades, historical fiction has largely shed its reputation as a subliterary genre. Readers and critics may have once equated the term with melodramatic imitations of Ivanhoe and Ben-Hur (both of which are plenty melodramatic already), and certainly a particular type of romanticized...

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Part Four: Settings

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pp. 171-174

In this final section, we’ll deal with setting, a subject that can make writers as spacey and theoretical as sophomores in a 2 a.m. dorm room. We love to wax poetic about the fundamental importance of setting, the intangible but momentous...

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12. Descriptions of Nature (The Parts Readers Tend to Skip)

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pp. 175-186

The natural world connects with literature in myriad and diverse ways. Your local bookstore may have a whole section labeled “nature writing.” Ecocriticism, a critical theory that interprets literature by focusing on its representations of nature, has become popular in academic circles over the...

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13. Houses

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pp. 187-197

As I mentioned in the section introduction, a nuanced perspective of setting recognizes that it goes beyond the physical landscape and makes use of the myriad contextual factors that any one place exerts on its inhabitants. When these contextual factors seem particularly limited to a certain region...

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14. Brands and Products

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pp. 198-210

Let’s talk Theory. Generally speaking, this is not something creative writers like to do. Exceptions exist — the scholar-novelists David Lodge and Umberto Eco have done important work in structuralism and semiotics, respectively — but the more common attitude is exemplified by the novelist...

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Epilogue

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pp. 211-220

After all this talk of specific situational challenges, of in-the-moment tactics and decisions, it may be time to step back and talk about the big-picture consequences. First, however, I’d like to pull back to a midshot range and discuss two issues that serve as important caveats and addendums...