One of my editors, very early on, recommended this slender paperback to me. It is one of the premier books on writing, and over the years, my copy has become as grimy as the Velveteen Rabbit. Instead of fur being worn way, the pages are dog-eared and chipped and stained. The cover has a thick crease down the center from some forgotten trip. Entire passages are underlined. Stars and exclamation points are scrawled in the margins.
It is a small book, and speaks directly to the heart of what a young writer, starting out, wants most to hear: “this book is designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction. Assume from the outset that the would-be writer using this book can become a successful writer if he wants to, since most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writer, knowing what it meant, did become writers.” [Italics mine.]
Which, he acknowledges is not what beginning writers usually hear. They hear how difficult it is, how the long odds are against them ever becoming published. He dismisses it by saying that while writing does take some talent, what it really requires is good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. If you have the love and this little book, you can probably figure out the rest.
He doesn’t write the book for literary writers, necessarily, either. He says directly that “drugstore fiction can have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class…” and blames literary snobbery on the limited range of teachers, and the desire to teach ethics and lessons in school settings. “At all levels, not just at the high schools. novels, short stories, and poems have for years been taught not as experiences that can delight and enliven the soul, but as things that are good for us, like Vitamin C.”
He argues that good fiction is written by passionate writers who are interested in their subjects, and offers examples and lessons to help the individual writer to “create the fictive dream,” by not making the errors that yank a reader out of the story. As readers, we want to fling open a window and climb into another world, and John Gardner knows how to help writers do that. He leads us through the choice of genre, which he insists is our first decision, and he urges the young writer to choose one he knows well, whether that’s a ghost story, a science fiction or a serious story about childhood. He then leads us, step by step, through the science behind fiction and how it works, and how we can use the techniques of detail, character, plotting, and language to write books that succeed on every level.
If you have not read it, you owe it yourself to find this great writing classic, and gulp it right down. Does anyone love it as much as I do?