Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Re: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway

seventh edition

If asked to name the one book that influenced my storytelling craft the most, I would not have to think for five seconds before answering. There is not even a close second. And I've read dozens if not hundreds of books on writing. I used to own at least fifty of them. But I never owned Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. It was a library book when I first encountered it sometime between 1988 and 1992. It was, I believe, the second edition tho it might have been the third.

There are now seven editions. I know this because I briefly held a copy of it when I visited Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon on the day of my return trip from Longview, Washington to Phoenix, Oregon just before Christmas. I had spent over thirty minutes of a precious hour-long whirlwind visit to the largest bookstore I've ever been in--it covers a city block--a place I'd been dreaming of returning to for over ten years, spent it looking for this one particular title, not caring if it was old or new, first edition or latest edition. I had my heart set on finally owning a copy, having been deprived of access to one for the seven months the library was closed and unable to get my hands on it again for the preparation for NaNo last year.

I walked out of Powell's that day without the book though, because seconds after I pulled it off the shelf, I spotted the price: 67 dollars. Someday maybe I can justify that. But not then. And not yet.

fifth edition

So I'm about to embark upon my fifth (or sixth? or seventh? I've lost count) reread of this book. Once again with a library copy. This one is the fifth edition and apparently the last one on which Janet Burroway's name stands alone on the cover. I discovered that this evening during my research online while preparing for this post. Editions six and seven have co-authors listed, a different one for each and neither name familiar to me. I think I just might prefer to have a copy of this fifth edition. Though there are some new chapter and section headings in 6 and 7 that intrigue me. I know this because of the access to the table of contents that most online bookstores provide now.

The book is a comprehensive manual of the techniques of story telling with each chapter focusing on one aspect i.e. description, dialog, character, setting, plot, POV, etc. Each chapter is followed by a list of suggested exercises for working with the concepts just covered and two or three short-stories of high quality that demonstrate the techniques. This anthology is probably one of the things that make the cost so prohibitive for me. That and the fact that it is designed and marketed as a college textbook. If I'd known last December that some of the college bookstores were selling the book for over eighty dollars, I might have seen the one I held as a bargain and, briefly, reconsidered.

I did not set out here to write a book review nor am I morphing this into one. It is just that when it came time to post, this was what was on my mind because I had just been browsing through the pages as I planned my approach for this latest reread. This will be the second or third time I've read this edition cover to cover. In the early nineties, in Longview, I read that library's copy at least three times. The first time at a headlong rush. The second time, slowly and methodically while taking copious notes. The notes were so comprehensive that I didn't feel the need to check out the book again for several years. When I did, it was primarily for the exercises at the ends of the chapters but I read it again with my notes as a fat bookmark to assure myself that my notes contained all the important points.

I lost those notes along with the rest of my reading and writing notes and manuscripts and personal library when we abandoned our storage unit in San Jose, CA in 2001.

When I first checked the library catalog shortly after we moved here, there wasn't a copy in the entire Southern Oregon system, which then encompassed Grants Pass and Klamath Falls as well as the Rogue Valley Community College Library. I don't remember now exactly when I discovered this 2002 edition was available through RVCC. It was sometime in 2004 though, after I'd finished retyping my paltry 100 or so pages of manuscript off the hard copies in the portfolio I'd been carrying nearly everywhere I went since 1996. The portfolio in which I collected the cleanest drafts of my best work.

The shock of loosing my manuscripts, computer, reference library, notes and research had sent me into a funk that lasted for two years. It wasn't writer's block. I continued to keep a daily journal. It was a form of despair that induced a sense that the dream I'd been dreaming since age 7 had been a child's illusion, a foolish and irresponsible waste of time and resources.

I began to reconnect with the dream again in late 2003 and just about that time, shortly before Christmas, my in-laws with whom we live, purchased a new PC. It sat there in its box for over a week as there wasn't room to set it up until the Christmas tree came down. But while it sat there, the picture on the box called to me and I recommitted to the dream. Foolish or not, it was mine. Illusion or not, without it, I could not envision myself.

It took me several months to type those manuscripts into the computer. As of course, I began fiddling with them as I went. It was around this time I discovered the Burroway book was now available through the library. I've been intending to redo the comprehensive notes for it ever since. If loss of access during the library closure did not give enough urgency to the task then seeing the price tag on that book did.

Instead of a typical review of the entire book after I've finished this reread, I'm going to post occasionally as I progress through it. I will try for weekly during the time I have possession of it. Which is at least for the next three weeks. But I can never count on this book renewing and it is often difficult to get a turn during a school term.

4 tell me a story:

Susan Helene Gottfried 2/13/2008 7:21 AM  

Second edition.

I used it as a text in my very first creative writing class.

Ray M. Solberg 2/13/2008 7:59 AM  

This sounds like an amazing book. I'm looking forward to your updates about it, but think I'll have to snoop in my local Library too ;)

Writer Hugo Roberts 3/17/2008 12:19 AM  

Dear Fellow Writer,
I was impressed with the beautiful story you wrote about a useful book. It reads like a love story.
The reasoin I'm writing is because I have to use this book in a workshop that starts in two weeks and I don't have the book yet!
That doesn't sound like much of a problem, but I live in war-torn Nepal. Mail is seldom delivered here and the U.S. Postal Service does not accept registered mail for Nepal.
I was wondering if I could read the notes you said you'd post for the time being. A friend of mine is purchasing the book for me and bring it over. I'll be very grateful.
I'm a beginning writer; you can read about me on my blog (my web site is being reconstructed):http://writerhugoroberts.blogspot.com/
My email adress: h.w.roberts@ntc.net.np
or
hugo.roberts@planet.nl
Thank you in advance. Sincerely,
Hugo Roberts

Writer Hugo Roberts 9/04/2008 8:34 PM  

Dear Fellow Writers,
I have received Janet Burroway's great book Writing Fiction. Meanwhile, I have completed the workshop. The book is included in my list of favorite books on my websites (where you can also contact me). Please click Writers' Resources in:
http://www.writerhugoroberts.com/
or http://www.hugoroberts.com/
Sincerely,
Hugo Roberts

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