Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Thanks so much for going deeper into third person narrator information. It spins my thinking into tornadic twists. But now you leave me with new questions. I feel that I'm on the brink of a great new discovery. Can you recommend books that would lead me on?

I’m glad I could help start those fierce winds. It often takes a while before a writer is ready to comprehend new information, especially with something tricky like point of view. I see this over and over as a teacher. It sounds like things are coming together for you on this topic.

Let me rattle off a list of books that cover point of view and narration in helpful ways. I appreciate the way Valerie Vogrin breaks down the logistics of point of view in Gotham Writers Workshop’s Writing Fiction. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter on characterization in this same book.) Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction has two chapters on point of view that address the larger concerns relevant to exploring any point of view strategy. James Wood’s How Fiction Works has an excellent discussion of the intricacies of the third person narrator. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction covers this subject in a way that reminds readers that every element of craft is impacted by and feeds into every other element. Perhaps one of these books will contribute to that great new discovery you mention. I hope so.

The larger question here is also worth addressing. How does a writer find resources that inform, inspire and make those ideas click right into place? The path to understanding is highly individual and quite slippery. A given reading won’t have the same impact for every writer. Certainly look into recommendations and common “must reads” for the fiction writer, but do a bit of your own investigation, too.

Look at the bibliographies of accomplished authors you admire. Have they written about the craft? Not all authors turn to this kind of endeavor, but many do. For example, in Ron Carlson Writes a Story, accomplished short story author Ron Carlson documents the intricacies of his writing process on one particular short story. Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction focuses on plot and structure. Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House explores common problems in contemporary fiction. Don’t be dismayed if you find your list is filled with authors long gone. This practice of authors writing about their craft goes as far back as Aristotle.

Read authors’ memoirs, essay collections and published letters. Selections from Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence from 1948 to 1964 are collected in The Habit of Being. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer includes essays on inspiration, failure and the relationship she’s found between writing and running. Anthony Doerr documents Four Seasons in Rome, including his journey into both fatherhood and a new book. Craft elements won’t be broken down into neat chapters with descriptive headings, but a lot can be gleaned about a writer’s process and approach in such writings.

Don’t stop at just books. Subscribe to writing magazines like The Writer, where articles on a variety of topics—some you may not even realize you urgently need to think about—will arrive in your mailbox regularly. Or stop by your library and search through back issues. Scour the Internet. Some authors keep blogs. Others use social networking sites. Robert Olen Butler broadcast the writing of a short story in real time on the Internet and took questions from viewers.

Seek out the instructional material that interests you. You never know what you’ll find and how it will crack open your understanding of the craft.