Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide

Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide

About Writing Fiction
Table of Contents & Excerpts

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Teachers may request an exam copy by writing contact@gothamwriters.com

See also:
Fiction Gallery
Writing Movies

Here is an honest, engaging guide with lessons every writer, at any stage, will benefit from. I read it just after I'd finished writing my second book. Now I'm inspired to begin a third.
Jhumpa Lahiri
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies

About Writing Fiction

Gotham Writers Workshop has mastered the art of teaching the craft of writing. And they have brought their teaching excellence to this book, Writing Fiction.

The perfect companion guide to any creative writing class, the book includes:

  • The fundamental elements of fiction craft—character, plot, point of view, etc.—explained clearly and completely
  • Key concepts illustrated with passages from great works of fiction
  • The complete text of “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver—a masterpiece of contemporary short fiction that is analyzed throughout the book
  • Exercises that let you immediately apply what you learn to your own writing

Written by Gotham Writers Workshop’s expert instructors and edited by Dean of Faculty Alexander Steele, Writing Fiction offers many of the same methods and exercises that have earned the school international acclaim. Once you’ve read—and written—your way through this book, you’ll have a command of craft that will enable you to turn your ideas into effective short stories and novels.

This book pairs very well with Fiction Gallery.

Save $40 on Tuition

New students can save $40 on tuition for their first 10-week class when they purchase Writing Fiction. See book for details.

Table of Contents & Excerpts

Click a chapter below to read an excerpt

Good writing comes down to craft far more than most people realize. True, anyone can write a story without training, which separates fiction writing from such activities as performing heart surgery or piloting a helicopter. But a working knowledge of craft is almost always necessary to make a story really good, worthy of being read by all those strangers. You could build a chair without any knowledge of woodworking because you have a good idea of what a chair is like. You would cut the wood and hammer the pieces together, and sure enough you would have a chair. But it would probably be wobbly, unsightly, and destined to break. It certainly wouldn’t sell. The same is true of fiction.

You should learn craft because it works. The “rules” of fiction craft weren’t created by any one person in particular. They simply emerged over time as guiding principles that made fiction writing stronger, in much the same way the mortise and tenon joint emerged as a good way to join parts of a chair.

Let’s say you learn that it’s better to show a character trait than to tell about it. (Show, don’t tell is something of a fiction mantra, like the carpenter’s Measure twice, cut once.) So you go back to your story in progress, cross out the line “Kathy was a dishonest woman,” and insert a moment where you show Kathy doing something dishonest. Perhaps Kathy realizes the teenage cashier has given her ten dollars too much in change but Kathy slips the bill in her purse without a word. Most likely the dishonesty trait will be illustrated more dramatically, more memorably. We’ll gain a more dimensional sense of Kathy as a “real” person. If dishonesty comes into play later in the story, we’ll be better prepared for it. You haven’t grown any wiser or more intrinsically talented. You’ve just picked up some craft. And craft makes all the difference.

In addition to making fiction better, knowledge of craft can actually make the writing easier. There is a theory that if you put a bunch of chimpanzees in a room with a bunch of typewriters, eventually one of them will tap out Hamlet. I have some doubts about this theory but I will say this: if those chimps know something about craft, they will get there faster. When you work with craft, you’re not floundering so much, waiting to stumble accidentally into something good. Once you have some craft at your fingertips, you’ll look a lot less like one of those chimps, showing teeth and screeching as you maniacally play with that toy of a keyboard.

Desire beats in the heart of every dimensional character. A character should want something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it creates a steam of momentum to drive a story forward. You may create a character with quirky habits and high intellect and vague tendencies toward adventure, but if all he does is sit on the couch and snack on lemon squares, the reader is going to find more excitement in thumb twiddling. Give that same character a desire to travel from Florida to Maine in a hot-air balloon and that begins to propel the story into motion, especially if the character doesn’t know how to acquire or pilot a hot-air balloon.

A character’s desire can be huge, looming, and intoxicating, like the desire to ease loneliness, to seek the revenge of a son’s death, or to climb to the peak of Mount Everest. Or the desire can be smaller and simpler: to find a wedge of stellar Brie, to escape the complaining of an ailing wife, or to coax the orchids into finally blooming in the backyard garden.

The grandness or simplicity of the desire is not important as long as the character wants it badly. In Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Theft,” the main character simply wants to retrieve her empty purse. However, this desire is rendered important to her and, therefore, it is important to the reader. A strong desire helps the reader identify and sympathize with the character, whereas a character without a strong desire will bore your readers, a great way to get them to abandon your story for good. After all, why should the reader care about a character retrieving a purse if she only kind of wants it back?

One of the benefits of spending time drawing a main character who has a strong desire is that the story line will grow organically from the character’s need. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, the main character, Humbert Humbert, desires nymphets (his word for beautiful preteen girls), a category in which the youthful Lolita reigns queen. The story grows out of Humbert Humbert’s attempts to possess Lolita’s body and affections. If he didn’t crave Lolita with such fierceness, there would be no story.

Plot makes fiction coherent by drawing together all the characters, settings, voice, and everything else around a single organizing force. That’s right, one organizing force. After all, a short story, even though it might have a big impact on a reader, is actually a very small and focused world, and the same is surprisingly true of a novel. Works of fiction are not, and cannot be, about a million things––they are usually about just one thing. And that thing, the force that draws everything together in a successful piece of fiction, is a single, pressing question.

This question––often known as the major dramatic question––is generally a straightforward yes/no question, one that can be answered by the end of the story. Will Brian find a job? Will Jamie and Ana move to separate apartments? Will Shira finally stop ignoring her inner child?

If you stop to look around, you’ll find major dramatic questions organizing things throughout the entire body of literature. Consider the following short stories. Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” is a busy piece, populated by fascinating characters and a memorable storytelling style, but the bottom-line concern is whether rabbinical student Leo Finkle will find himself a wife. In Peter Cameron’s “Memorial Day,” we wonder whether the little boy narrating the story can somehow get back his old life––with his parents still married. In “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, our narrator asks whether Sonny can rise above his difficult life and his suffering, and, in the echoes of that, whether we all can.

The single major dramatic question remains the central organizing force even in the relatively complex world of novels. In Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, the question is whether Elizabeth Bennet will end up with Mr. Darcy. The question in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is whether Robert Jordan will escape his apparent fate by surviving his military mission. In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden the question seems to be whether Cal is to be forgiven for who he’s turned out to be. Hundreds of pages, but in all these cases, one dominant question is at the forefront. One of the major reasons why we keep reading is because of the suspense the major dramatic question creates. We need to find out what the answer will turn out to be.

When I consider a photograph of myself taken from several feet away I see a caricature––comically high eyebrows and a crooked chin. When my mother looks at me she sees herself as a younger woman, sort of. When my husband gazes at me he sees a big smile and bright eyes and a mop of tousle-ready hair and twelve years’ worth of complicated history. From a traffic helicopter I am one of many toy-size drivers inching my way up Interstate 5. What makes me in turn hideous, humorous, poignant, beautiful, and insignificant is point of view. Point of view (also referred to as POV) is equally influential in fiction writing.

Consider the story of a lovers’ triangle. Imagine how you might respond to that story presented primarily from the point of view of the husband, left at home with his young son over Thanksgiving weekend while his wife slips away for a ski trip with her lover in Vermont. Now how would you respond if the same story was presented from the point of view of the unfaithful wife, whose husband hasn’t made love to her, or spoken a kind word to her, in four years, since she was six months’ pregnant; or from the point of view of the lover himself, recently flunked out of law school, adrift in the world, desperate for someone to tell him what to do next? Or what if this story’s events are observed by some fourth party, such as the young son or a private detective hired by the husband to spy on his wife?

There you have it––more than anything else, the point of view you choose for your story or novel will affect the way readers respond emotionally to your characters and their actions. Your choice of point of view will also influence other elements of your piece, such as tone and theme. Depending on who is narrating the lovers’ triangle story, the tone of the story could be repentant, cruel, caustically funny, wistful, or bitter. The story’s theme could be the improbability of marriage, the slippery slope of fidelity, the sacred nature of vows, the tenuousness of love, the fickleness of women, the perfidy of men, etc. And all of this depends on the point of view the writer chooses for the story. As I was saying, pretty darn powerful, this POV business.

What is description made of? Words, of course. If you’re bringing the movie in your head to the page, words are the strands of light that determine the colors, and shadows, and clear shapes.

Mark Twain once noted that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Always challenge yourself to find the best possible word to convey the picture in your mind. Quite often the perfect word comes to you instinctually and, no, you shouldn’t agonize over every word as you fly through a first draft. But at some point, find the words that best sustain the magical illusion of your story.

Let’s return to this line from The Passion:

One woman who kept a fleet of boats and a string of cats and dealt in spices is here now, in the silent city.

Everything is pretty straightforward in that sentence except for the phrase a string of cats. Why did the author choose string? She could have used any number of other words––collection, group, family, pack, litter, entourage, coterie, to name just a few. But obviously she felt there was a particular meaning in the word string that made it feel just right. Perhaps she liked the sense of the cats following in single file or the sense that the cats were somehow attached to the woman. Regardless of whether the author found this word instantly or spent half a day worrying over it, the word string makes a strong and specific impact.

How big is your vocabulary? Though you don’t want to show off by using elaborate words all the time, you should always seek to widen your choice of word possibilities. Keep a dictionary around. An old, old language, English has absorbed words from Latin, French, Spanish, Asian languages, and many others, giving us a range of choices that rival the spectrum of the rainbow. If you’re at a loss for a word, the dictionary and its cousin, the thesaurus, could be your best friends.

Just watch out for adjectives and adverbs. Like sirens, they can lure you into the perilous waters of weak description.

But simply capturing the sound of lifelike dialogue isn’t enough. Actually, the realism of good dialogue is something of an illusion. Readers of fiction have a higher expectation for dialogue than the conversations of real life. Fictional dialogue needs to have more impact, focus, relevance, than ordinary conversation. The truth is most real-life conversations are dull, or at least they would come off as dull on paper. Try transcribing a conversation that you overhear. Or tape one and then type it onto the computer. It probably won’t make any sense. If it does, it will most likely be tedious. The dialogue will probably take a long time to get to the point.

Let’s look at a clip of lifelike conversation:

“Hey. Um, hey.”
“Oh, hey.”
“Hey, Dana. It’s Gina.”
“Oh, hi. Wait, can you hold on? Okay, hi.”
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Good. I mean, nothing. How’re you doing?”
“Good. Where are you?”
“On my cell.”
“I mean, where.”
“Oh, on my way after work, like, in the street.”
“Um, yeah.”

The above selection is dull and would do absolutely nothing for a story, because it mimics real speech too closely. Now, were it fictionalized, it might sound more like this:

“Hey, Dana. It’s Gina.”
“Hi. What’s up?”
“Good. I mean, nothing. How’re you doing?”

Here we get to the point much more quickly. But this still isn’t quality dialogue because there’s no real significance to the conversation. Take a look at what happens when the dialogue is transformed to this:

“Hey, Dana, it’s Gina.”
“Hi. Was I supposed to call you?”
“Yeah, it’s Wednesday. Are you still up for seeing a movie?”
“I have to wait to see what Matt is doing.”

In this dialogue, you get a real sense of the characters and the tension between them. Gina’s tone is a little challenging, as if she’s used to Dana blowing her off. And we see that Dana has an avoidance of making concrete plans, due to her reliance on Matt. With just a few lines, this dialogue gives us a wealth of valuable information.

In addition to grounding the reader in a physical place and time, setting can actually enhance the emotional landscape of a piece, affecting the atmosphere and mood.

Edgar Allan Poe was a master of using setting to maximize the mood of his stories, as seen in the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

As much as painting the time and place, perhaps more, Poe is evoking a mood, an emotional state––one of bleakness and danger and melancholy. Of course it’s autumn, of course night is falling, of course the clouds hang oppressively. Practically every word in this passage tolls like a solemn bell. Poe underscores the tension before you even know what the tension is . . . or could be. Descriptively, Poe may be a little over the top, but dramatically, he’s right where he should be, setting the stage for the dark tale about to unfold.

In a far more contemporary example, Lorrie Moore uses the setting of a hospital to convey the emotional state of her protagonist in “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

The Mother studies the trees and fish along the ceiling’s edge in the Save the Planet wallpaper border. Save the Planet. Yes! But the windows in this very building don’t open and diesel fumes are leaking into the ventilating system, near which, outside, a delivery truck is parked. The air is nauseous and stale.

The setting seems even more nightmarish later with:

Red cellophane garlands festoon the doorways. She has totally forgotten it is as close to Christmas as this. A pianist in the corner is playing “Carol of the Bells,” and it sounds not only unfestive but scary, like the theme from The Exorcist.

People often use the terms voice and style interchangeably, but there’s an enormous difference from the writer’s perspective. Style consists of various technical choices made by a writer, and the voice is the sum result of those choices. If voice is the velvet dress, style is the fabrics, threads, buttons, and such that create the garment.

The dirty truth is that a piece’s voice is created by the two or three most elemental tools in writing––namely, what words you pick, how you string them together in a sentence, and how you mix and match your sentences to form paragraphs. Hemingway used short sentences. Short sentences and repetition. Dorothy Parker liked to throw around the slang, know what I mean. Nabokov favored amplitudinous words. Though these things may seem very technical, you’ll see just how closely stylistic choices relate to the personality of the narrator and the story’s content. So let’s take a look at how to use these very handy tools of style.

The theme is the container for your story. Theme will attempt to hold all the elements of your story in place. It is like a cup. A vessel. A goblet. The plot and characters and dialogue and setting and voice and everything else are all shaped by the vessel. In many cases the vessel will go unnoticed by readers, but it would be very difficult to drink a glass of wine without the glass itself. The glass itself is, of course, part of the experience, but it is not one we always pay much attention to.

Okay, okay, so I used a nice metaphor. But now you want to know: what the heck is a theme? First, the word theme is confusing and may do you as much harm as good. You shouldn’t think of theme as the ponderous sort of explanations given by critics and academics. That doesn’t have much to do with writing a story. And you’ll get into an equal amount of trouble if you think of theme as synonymous with message or moral. That kind of thing is best left to pundits and philosophers.

The novelist John Gardner wisely said: “By theme here we mean not a message––a word no good writer likes applied to his work––but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation.” You see, the theme may be simply world wide inflation without there being any elegant solution for inflation or even a single point of view on the subject. The great Anton Chekhov also said something smart. He said that the fiction writer does not need to solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

So, you see, you’re off the hook. You don’t have to create themes that will solve the problems of the world. You just have to shine your flashlight on some aspect of life and let the reader see what’s there. Not every aspect. Some aspect. And that’s a key point because a theme should give a story some kind of focus, in a manner similar to how plot gives a story focus.

Readers are rude. They’ll put your story or novel down in the middle of that sublime passage you spent ten hours on and never pick it up again, without apology. The reader holds all the cards; he has no obligation to the writer, while the writer has every obligation to him. That’s why writers cut and tweak, mercilessly, throughout the revision process, down to its final stages.

There comes a time when you must cast a stern, judgmental eye on each and every one of your sentences, like a hanging judge whose noose is a sharpened pencil. No mercy here. As Don Newlove, the man with the bleeding fingers, says, “It’s best to cut, not just scrape.” And so your lead scalpel hovers over every line, every word.

“Omit needless words,” says Strunk and White. I couldn’t have said it better. For sure I couldn’t have said it more concisely.

So much cutting may seem masochistic, but the fact is a piece of writing that can work well in five thousand words shouldn’t run to ten thousand. And you’ll be surprised what you can cut. So much of what we state is implied; so much that we’ve spelled out can be deduced or imagined. Remember, the reader wants to participate in the story. Do all their imagining for them,

and they feel left out. Furthermore, the reader’s imagination is a better writer than you or I will ever be, so why not let it do some of the work? And what we cut none but ourselves will ever miss. Unlike oil paints, words cost nothing; use as many as you like, scrape them all away, use some more––no charge. There’s no excuse, in other words, for saving your words.

“I’ve got a few short stories ready to go,” you say. “So, what do I do? Should I contact an agent?”

No. While an agent might consider a book-length collection of short stories, the effort required to market individual short stories is not worth the meager profit they command.

You’re going to have to go it alone, so let’s start by exploring potential markets for short stories.

At the top of the tier are the big glossies––the few large-circulation consumer magazines that (bless them) still publish fiction: The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Esquire, Playboy, GQ, Jane, Seventeen, There’s no harm in approaching them, but these high-profile markets are difficult to crack. But fear not, because you have access to the vast and glorious world of literary magazines.

What exactly is a literary magazine, or litmag? Well, it’s a smaller-scale publication, often published quarterly, with a circulation of anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand. Many are associated with universities and nonprofit organizations. As they cannot attract vast sums from advertising, they often depend on foundation grants to survive. They are run by (generally unpaid) staff who do it for the love of literature or the work experience or the high cool factor. And many have an excellent reputation.

There are hundreds of litmags, from top-tier publications like Zoetrope and The Paris Review, which are almost as difficult to get into as the glossies, to small-scale efforts that exude the appealing whiff of the mimeograph and are the literary equivalent of garage pop. In addition, there is a growing body of litmags on the Web. Some correspond to print versions, others are published solely on-line. What they have in common is a willingness to work with new writers.

“But if there are so many of them, how do I choose?” you ask.

Easy. You begin by consulting the market guides.

Your Turn:
Write down ten things that might possibly serve as story ideas, drawing from things that happened to you over the past week––people, emotions, thoughts, situations. Nothing is too big or small, cosmic or microscopic. Then review your list and pick the idea that looks the most promising for a story. The right idea will probably give you a buzz when you see it. Then list several ways in which this idea might be turned into a fictional story. Will your idea result in a brilliant story? Maybe, maybe not. But you’ll probably discover how plentiful ideas can be.

Your Turn:
Recall the worst person you’ve ever met. A psychotic boss, a back-stabbing friend, a playground bully. Or make someone up. Next, assign one redeeming quality to this character––kindness, courtesy, sympathy, a fondness for animals. Then write a passage with this person in action. Perhaps you show a sadistic ex-spouse helping a homeless person find shelter, or a bank robber arranging a baby-sitter on behalf of a woman he’s just tied up. The result? A fully dimensional villain.

Your Turn:
Find an annoyingly dry and difficult piece of writing, preferably a legal document or a manual for some kind of appliance or equipment. Then rewrite the piece, turning the writing around 180 degrees, making it ecstatically poetic or down-home friendly or anything else you like. Use the third person. But employ drastically different words and sentences and paragraphs than found in the original document. You’ll begin to see the profound effect of stylistic choices. And you will certainly provide a more entertaining document than the original.


Click a chapter below to read an excerpt

The faculty of the Gotham Writers' Workshop—which now has 6,000 students not only in New York City but around the world (with online classes)—use an original approach in this how-to: Raymond Carver’s classic story “Cathedral” (reprinted in the book) serves as a basis for their discussion of technique. The contributors are not household names, but all are published authors of fiction. Chapters touch on all the essentials: character development, pacing, dialogue, and revision (“Real Writers Revise” the chapter title exhorts). All expand on the idea that “[g]ood writing comes down to craft far more than most people realize,” while also reminding aspiring authors that “rules are made to be broken.” The writing is fresh and full of concrete advice (e.g., “Desire is in the heart of every dimensional character”), and exercises allow students to explore what they have learned. This is an excellent starting place for someone exploring the are and craft of writing fiction.

Located in New York City, the Gotham Writers' Workshop is the nation’s leading private creative writing school, teaching thousands of writers each year. The GWW has now published a manual on the craft of writing fiction, written by some of its best teachers.

There are 11 chapters on all aspects of writing fiction, from character, plot and dialogue to revision and selling what you write. While this manual isn’t in the same league as Stephen King’s marvelous On Writing, it’s a good place for the beginning fiction writer to start learning the basics of the craft. The strength of this book is its accessibility: It explains all the basics of writing fiction in a simple, easy-to-understand manner that doesn’t intimidate.

The chapter on developing characters is a good example. It tells you that characters, especially the lead characters, must be motivated by a desire, must want something. Characters must also have the capacity to change: A story is largely about a character in transition. The author asks you to get to know your characters intimately and provides a long list of questions you should be able to answer about them. Noah Lukeman offers many of the same questions in his excellent book The Plot Thickens.

The chapter on plot is encouraging because it asserts that plot need not be predetermined. Indeed, the author believes that plot emerges as the writing process moves forward, that plot is organic. Plot and character are closely intertwined. The goal of the protagonist will often give the writer his plot, with some obstacles thrown in for good measure. The author believes in the classic tripartite story structure of beginning, middle and end, and explains the role of each.

We get an excellent chapter on description, on how to use the five senses when telling your story. The author doesn’t like adjectives and adverbs but encourages writers to use strong nouns and verbs. The adjective hasn’t been invented that can save a weak noun. It’s the conventional wisdom taught in all fiction classes: “She sprinted” is always better than “She ran fast.”

The chapter on dialogue asks us to listen to the rhythms of everyday speech and write dialogue accordingly. The author recommends, much like Elmore Leonard does, that you go easy on the attributions. “He said” is usually better than some monstrosity such as “He interjected savagely.” The author shows you the fundamental mistakes writers make in writing dialogue and offers some basic tips on how to avoid them.

The authorial voice is given an excellent chapter. Basically, the author tells you not to be too conscious of voice or style: “Bad style often comes when a writer is trying too hard to imitate the style of other writers.” The best solution is to write in a way that comes naturally, without showing off. That way, things like sentence structure and word choice take care of themselves.

Perhaps the best two chapters in the book are the final two. They focus on revision and the business of writing. The revision chapter is, in fact, an excellent summation of the whole boo. The author makes an important point about first drafts: “It’s okay if the first draft sucks; it should suck.” You must give yourself permission to write badly at times. It is through lengthy revision that most of the work gets done, where the story is polished into something compelling.

The author shows you what to do when you revise. Again, all the basics are here. How to revise for the consistency of voice and theme. How the story’s theme, its organizing principle, will usually only emerge after multiple drafts. How to approach issues of grammar.

The chapter on the business of writing tells you to wear two hats, the creative and the business. The skills are different, and the business side is eminently learnable. The author shows you how to approach editors and obtain an agent. Most importantly, the author demands that you rein in some of your expectations. If you want to get rich, you might be better off considering another line of business. Very few fiction writers make a living off their writing alone.

While Writing Fiction is far from groundbreaking, it does tell you all you need to know to begin writing fiction. Reading this book is a lot like taking a basic creative writing class at your local community college. You’ll learn a lot if you pay attention and put these lessons into practice.

That great French lark-meister and sometime surrealist Louis Aragon once got in a jam when what he mischievously called his “novel-that-was-not-a-novel” veered too close to fact. He had described, in 1924, the illicit underworld of the Passage de l’Opera—one of Paris’s famed shopping arcades, a “ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions”—which was soon to be demolished for an access way to the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon’s rank imagination, the arcade’s shopkeepers charged, had tarnished them with tales of debauchery and titillation. Come clean! They cried. Our reputations! Who has supplied you with these secrets and lies? “Good people, harken to me, I get all my information straight from heaven.” Aragon replied in Paris Peasant. “The secrets of each of you, like those of language and love, are revealed to me each night, and there are nights in broad daylight.”

Aragon’s revelatory smudging of fiction and fact came to mind as I paged through Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 284 pp., $14.95), a new manual for the somnambulists among us. Whole wards of sleepers turn out in broad daylight these days, pillows akimbo, manuscripts billowing from pajama pockets, novels and stories and character sketches in varying shades of illumination. Damnable pleasures? Darn right. “It’s a fact,” notes GWW dean of faculty Alexander Steele, who edited this volume, “a staggering number of people out there harbor an intense desire to create fiction.” Over 6,000 students served, says the workshop, among them a glorious menagerie—“doctors, lawyers, accountants, janitors, policemen, undertakers, housewives, retirees, students, psychics, zookeepers” –all seekers after their own unseemly selves.

They will find this a perfectly useful guide. There are wise nudges toward the mastery of craft (“Know Thy Theme”; “Excommunicate Those Latinisms”; “Don’t Be a Chimp”). There are bankable tips on the use of dialogue (“exclamation points in dialogue tend to make statements sound like lovesick teenage e-mail”) and blunt words on revision (“It’s okay if a first draft sucks; it should suck; it’s supposed to suck”). There is a whole point-of-view menu, including the ever attractive “unreliable” narrator, plus the good old third person omniscient, upon which we are urges: “Relish your godlike ability to know and see everything.” Still, my favorite imperative of the book is the first-person narration drill: “Get inside someone’s skin.” Aragon would approve zestily.

Welcome pointers all. But is the craft of fiction really teachable? Life, let’s just say, is eminently teachable. And Writing Fiction shows how to live it to the hilt. “What is in your character’s refrigerator right now?” the guide asks as it pressures writers beyond the blue-eyed and fair-haired school of characterization. It’s a swell question. (A geranium? A ham hock?) The possibilities are fiendish and unlimited. Elsewhere, the guide helpfully advises: “A character should want something.” (Shouldn’t we all?) By far the most compelling aspect of this book, though, is the gusto it takes in writing done well. Its many citations of top-drawer passages are bolts straight out of Aragon’s magical-mystery dreamscape. We find a life-changing (it did mine, anyway) line from James Joyce: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” We’re treated to Holden Caulfield’s exchange with a cabdriver in The Catcher in the Rye, still sublime as ever:

“Hey, Horowitz,” I said. “You ever pass by the lagoon in Central Park? Down by Central Park South?”

“The what?”

“The lagoon. That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You know.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance?”

“Where who goes?”

Makes you want to backstroke through the Pond and nuzzle a mallard or two, right? And there’s—indulge me here—more doublelicious Joyce: “…to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” There are also thimblefuls of Fitzgerald, snippets of Lorrie Moore and Flannery O’Connor, and a running mini-colloquium on Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral”—that omphalos of modern short fiction—which is appended in its entirety. “This blind man,” it begins, “an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”

The best lesson of Writing Fiction, I’m trying to say, is the existential one. Shouldn’t we be the fabulists of our own lives? “There are strange flowers of reason to match each error of the senses,” Aragon observed about the hothouse byways of the mind. “Admirable gardens of absurd beliefs, forebodings, obsessions, and frenzies. Unknown, ever-changing gods take shape there. I shall contemplate these leaden faces, these hemp-seeds of the imagination. How beautiful you are in your sandcastles, you columns of smoke!” These are the fictions of our secret selves. Go ahead, give them heed. Write them down. These strange flowers—they’re all we’ve got.