Tag Archives: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction

What’s Next for Read to Write Stories

12 Sep

For the past six years, I’ve used this blog to explore the nuts and bolts of writing craft. The posts were an extension of what I was doing with students in the classroom, but it was also a form of close study to improve my own writing. I had written a novel, as good a book as I was able to produce at the time. An agent agreed to represent it, and the book received a lot of really flattering passes from editors. I sometimes tell people that the book didn’t sell because it went out at the height of the economic meltdown, when editors were fearful, especially of a genre-bending Kansas novel by an unproven author like myself. That may be true. But it was also true that I needed to become a better writer.

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” (Thanks Amanda Eyre Ward for the awesome blurb!)

The blog led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. It’s a collection of all-new exercises (and short memoir pieces about honing my craft as a reader and writer) based on 40 one-page excerpts from recent amazing books. I’m quite proud of the result, and since its publication in late February, I’ve posted less often at this blog. I wasn’t sure what to write about. After around 200 exercises posted here (and 40 more in the book), I began to sense that I had exhausted what I wanted to say about craft. It’s true that, in some ways, craft discussions are inexhaustible. Every writer approaches the eternal problems of story (introducing and developing characters and setting, raising the stakes, advancing the plot, and structuring it all so that it makes sense) in slightly different ways. Yet as I’ve often told my students, once you identify strategies used by a writer, you’ll see them over and over in other books. We are all part of a grand tradition of storytelling that goes back as far as humans have walked the planet.

I’m also much more confident in my own writing. I’ve published stories in journals that, as a MFA student, I read with awe. I had a story included in a big national anthology. I’ve got enough stories for a collection, have written a draft of a middle grade novel, and am halfway through an adult novel that I’m really excited about. I’m still learning my craft, and (no kidding) I use the exercises I’ve posted here. Yet I’m also restless, ready to do something a little different at this blog.

Which brings me to my day job. I’m the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, and one of my responsibilities is talking to writers about the entire writing and publishing process. I help organize an annual Agents & Editors Conference, and in the past three years, I’ve met and talked with more than sixty agents and editors. I work closely with Becka Oliver, the Writers’ League’s Executive Director and a former literary agent. From Becka and the pros who’ve come to Austin from New York and LA and elsewhere, I’ve learned a great deal about how the publishing industry talks about books. I’ve listened to pitches from hundreds of aspiring authors and seen many of them acquire agents and, eventually, book deals.

I never pitched a book as a MFA student, and I can’t remember ever having a single conversation with anyone who had. Learn to write first, we were told—which isn’t bad advice. But one side effect is that pitches and query letters remain a mystery or simply a hoop to jump through. But what I’ve begun to recognize at the conference is how exciting it is to tell someone about your book—and to hear about someone else’s. As readers, we occasionally stumble upon books, but more often, we pick up a book because someone told us about it, and something about their description captured our imagination.

When we tell people about our books, that is the reaction we are hoping for: awe, excitement, and a curiosity that absolutely must be sated.

Just as with books and stories, there is a craft to a good pitch. That is what I want to explore next as this blog. I will be taking jacket copy from recent and new books and teasing out what makes them effective: not just what catches our attention but also how they distill often complex stories into a short paragraph or two.

Studying pitches is not only important to selling a book (and for answering that inevitable question, “So what do you write?”). I’ve also found that problems with pitches often point to problems with the manuscript as a whole.

I’m excited about this, and I hope you will find it helpful and interesting as well.

Looking for Practical Exercises for Your Fiction Writing Class?

14 Aug

If you’re an instructor in a fiction writing class, you probably have moments where you’re trying to explain how good dialogue works—or plot or character building or descriptions of setting—but don’t have the words. Or, if you’re a student, you leave class inspired by something your teacher said, but when you sit down, you can’t make the leap between brilliant classroom insight and the blinking cursor on the computer screen. If this is you, check out the exercises at Read to Write Stories.

Exercises get a bad name because too many ask you to write about something you don’t care about. These exercises, however, help you borrow strategies from great books and use them in your own writing. You’ll find more than 150 exercises based on work by (and interviews with) authors such as Charles Baxter, Aliete de Bodard, Alexander Chee, Natasha Deón, Brian Evenson, Ru Freeman, Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, George Saunders, and Laura van den Berg.

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” —Amanda Eyre Ward

Each exercise contains a short excerpt from a novel or story (and a few essays and memoirs), a discussion of the craft within it, and an exercise for using that craft in your own writing. Interviews focus on the craft challenges the authors faced and overcame. The site is used by dozens of writing classes around the country.

If you want something to carry in your backpack, you can now buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, a collection of all-new exercises based on 40 one-page excerpts from literary writers (Teju Cole), fabulists (Karen Russell), prose stylists (Zadie Smith), cyberpunk authors (William Gibson), crime writers (Joe R. Lansdale), women’s fiction authors (Jennifer Weiner), young adult (Benjamin Alire Sáenz), story writers (Elizabeth McCracken), and straight-up geniuses (Jesmyn Ward).

Poets & Writers named the book one of its “Best Books for Writers.” You can find it at your local bookstore and at Amazon.


Dallas: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction at Interabang

26 Mar

Heads up, Dallas, TX: I’ll be reading from The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction at Interabang Books tonight, Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m. You can find Interabang at 10720 Preston Rd, Set 1009B, Dallas, TX 75230.

I’ll be joined by special guest, Tex Thompson, who will read an excerpt from her rural fantasy novel One Night in Sixes (think of something along the lines of Steven King’s Dark Tower series). I’ll create an exercise based on the excerpt and talk with Tex about the craft in the novel and in turning points in general.

I hope to see you there!


AWP and The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction

8 Mar

unknownIf you’re in Tampa for AWP this week, this is where you’ll find me and The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Friday, 10:30-11:30 am, A Strange Object’s booth, 1708.

I’ll be signing books and, for anyone who brings a book or chapbook they’ve picked up at the book fair, I’ll create a writing exercise on the spot based on one page of that awesome new story or novel that you’re so excited about!

And, since A Strange Object is my wonderful publisher, you’ll find tall stacks of The Writer’s Field Guide there.

Friday, 7-9 pm, Gram’s Place (3109 N. Ola Ave)

I’ll be reading along with four other fantastic writers: Rita Bullwinkle, Jen Sandwich, Tom Hart, and Claire Vaye Watkins. The venue is a Gram Parsons-themed tree house. Yep. There will be free drinks as long as they last.


4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?


Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?


Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.


Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.


How to Save Your Darlings, Not Kill Them

26 Feb

Everyone who has taken a writing workshop has, at some point, heard the advice, “Kill your darlings.” A lot of very confident writers have said or supposedly said it: Hemingway, Faulkner and Welty are just a few. Through repetition, the maxim has acquired the solidity of one thing that young writers often desire most: a rule to follow. Sometimes it’s even true. But even more often, you pick up a book you love and see example after example of lines that must have been precious to the author.

–Read the entire essay—with exercises based on work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Gibson, and J. D. Salinger—at the Austin American Statesman.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How I Learned to Love (and Learn From) My Kids’ Favorite Books

23 Feb

When my wife and I decided to have kids, we felt pretty sure that they would grow to love reading as much as we did. Even before our oldest son was born, he was getting a taste for literature. In bed at night, I read Tom McCarthy’s weird, avant-garde novel REMAINDER aloud to my wife’s pregnant belly. It was our version of playing Mozart. We didn’t expect that it would make our baby a literary genius, but it was a way to talk to him in a language we loved. Sure enough, when the nurses were drying and weighing, the nurse said, “Say something, Dad,” and so I spoke. Xavier turned his head toward me. The nurse nodded. “He recognizes your voice.”

–Read the entire essay about what I’ve learned from my kids’ favorite audiobooks at the wonderful writer Samantha M. Clark’s blog.


You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.


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