Posted by: oneyearbook | April 27, 2009

Book: A Field Guide to Writing Fiction

This book, A Field Guide to Writing Fiction, by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (“a Pulitzer Prize-winnning novelist,” the cover informs me), is the shortest of the various writing guides I’ve been exploring over the past few months – it took me all of 45 minutes to read – and also, I think, the oldest, and thus the most old-fashioned. Guthrie gives his advice in terse prose – he gets to the blunt heart of things, really. He also includes a section called ‘Authors and Alcohol,’ in which he expresses the opinion that, in fact, writers who say they do their best work when drunk are lying. “Alcohol can stimulate imagination. It can find inventinos,” he admits, with regard to Raymond Chandler’s assertion that he couldn’t figure out the endings to any of his stories without being drunk. “But I’ll lay my bottom dollar, as one not unacquainted with booze, that Chandler had to sober up to write that ending.”

This is pretty typical of Guthrie’s advice. He also speaks against writer’s colonies, suggesting that they end up producing more talk than writing, and reminds the writer not to trust the critical faculties of friends and family, as they’re likely to just be nice. He suggests that writers not worry about their theme, but leave that up to the critics; and explains, in detail, how to make coincidences plausible. There’s actually more practical advice of the putting-words-on-the-page type in this guide than in many others.

My favorite section was ‘Novelty,’ which quotes Edmund Gosse, saying, “The secret of successful fiction is a continual slight novelty.”

Guthrie advises us, though, not to overdo the novelty, for fear of losing the reader; and then suggests that the best use of novelty is in language, as in the use of misplaced modifiers – “the breathless upthrust” of the Tetons, he suggests, has that novelty of description.

Here’s his last word on novelty, discussing using one sense to illuminate another:

“Dark hills at evening in the West/Where sunset hovers like a sound/Of golden horns …” (E.A. Robinson, ‘Dark Hills’)

“Sound for sight, and sight all the better for it. There’s Gosse’s novelty,” says Guthrie. Indeed.



  1. Have you seen this yet? I enjoyed it…

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