S2/E27: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Michael Noll
This review comes to you courtesy of a recommendation by my friend Karol Lagodzki. He’s getting his Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) from “The W,” AKA the Mississippi University for Women, alma mater of Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Blanche Colton Williams, author and first editor of the O. Henry Prize Stories. This is the only book on writing I believe he has ever recommended to me, and I’m so grateful he did!
A bit about Michael Noll: While The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction appears to be Michael Noll’s first book, he is the author of a number of short stories, including one (“The Tank Yard”) featured in the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories anthology and most recently in Crazyhorse, The College of Charleston’s literary magazine. For the rest of his resume, I’m going to quote his page on Amazon:
“He earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University, studying under Tom Grimes, Debra Monroe, and Tim O’Brien. After graduation, he served for four years as the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House, helping to organize a reading series featuring writers such as Charles Baxter, Percival Everett, Carole Maso, Francine Prose, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Robert Stone. Michael saw firsthand the different teaching approaches used by the writers, and he put them to use in undergraduate creative writing classes for a decade at Texas State and in workshops sponsored by the Austin journal American Short Fiction and Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. He currently works as Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas, organizing and planning more than 50 writing classes a year and one of the largest agents and editors conferences in the country. He moderates a monthly panel discussion on craft and publishing that often draws more than 100 people to BookPeople in Austin and, in its recorded form as the Writers’ League of Texas podcast, has been listened to by thousands. His blog, Read to Write Stories, is used in more than two dozen MFA, undergraduate, and high school writing classes across the country and is read by more than 8000 people every month.”
I’m actually not anywhere done with this book, because I’m using the exercises to inspire a weekly story-writing practice. Still, I can give you a peek into what this book has to offer. Here are my…
1 How the Book is Organized (Part One). Noll divides the book into three main sections:
Tools of the Trade – explores the skills (or building blocks) that great writers use to bring their stories to life
Lenses for the Artist’s Vision – explores “the mechanics of vision” (i.e. “the shape a story takes, the details it focuses on, and the style its sentences take”)
Putting It Together on Page One – highlights examples of page ones that successfully bring together several of the tools of the trade and “mechanics of vision” on page one of their story or novel
Oh, and there’s an Appendix where he lists fix groups of narrative tropes (e.g. Family and Group Dynamic Stories) and several examples of each (e.g. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward).
2 How the Book is Organized (Part Two). Noll submits that workshopping isn’t the only game in town when it comes to improving our craft. He highlights the specific tools of the trade, etc. by following the three steps below. The best part about this approach? “If you mess up, no one will yell at you. It’s just you, this book, and your story.”
STEP ONE: Read the [One-Page] Excerpt [from a Short Story or Novel]
STEP TWO: Read the Discussion of the Excerpt [Where Noll Points Out a Specific Strategy or Technique Being Used]
STEP THREE: Try Out the Exercise – Now You do it!
Noll has developed the exercises (and others) to highlight these strategies through his many years teaching writing and writing his own stories. He finds this far more effective to helping himself and other writers uncover their own best writing than “pontificat[ing] and spout[ing] off after the writing is over and done with about The Craft or The Process or The Art.”
3 There Are No Rules of Fiction — But There Are Strategies. I think it’s tempting to think that if you can just learn enough, some magic set of perfect rules than you can write the perfect work. But then, as soon as you learn something that is an end-all-be-all “rule” someone comes along and writes a beautiful piece of work that flies directly in the face of that “rule.” Word choice matters here. Strategies are different. The dictionary defines them as “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” A plan of action can be tried and adapted to your own situation, to your own story, to your own style of writing. A rule, in contrast, suggests a certain amount of inflexibility. There’s a reason that “rules” are often paired with “regulations.” Rules ask you to adapt your fiction to serve them. Strategies want to serve you to help discover the best way to share your story.
Hack: Watch for skimming!
He urges us to pay attention to the places we skim. He believes that it’s the best way to detect where the writer (whether it’s us or someone else) has “stopped telling a story an is doing something else — like [merely] describing setting, character, plot, or conflict” instead of using those things to move the story forward. Or as he puts it: “Don’t look for setting; look for the parts where place drives the story forward — where character and plot and conflict and dialogue draw you from one sentence to the next.”
Two quotes today!
“Do the work, and the creativity will follow. Sit around, wondering what to write, and you’ll never write a word.” Michael Noll
“In farming, beauty and work are inseparable. It’s not always easy to tell where one ends and the other begins. This is also true of writing. It often feels mechanical, and you slog through sentence after sentence, no idea where you’re going or when you’ll be done. But then you catch a glimpse of something that you’ve written that’s beautiful or captivating or wickedly suspenseful, and you’ll feel elated. Then you’ll go back to work. So when I say get to work, what I mean is, create something wondrous. And, also, I mean get back to work.” Michael Noll
I hope this was helpful! I love this book. I’m getting so many great short stories actually doing the work in these exercises. I 100% recommend it. And if you need more encouragement to pick it up, then know that Poets & Writers also recently listed it on their “Best Books for Writers” list.
Remember, as I mentioned last week, The Rookie Writer Show is switching to a bi-weekly format. In our next episode (July 30th, 2020), I’ll be reviewing Dear Writer, Are You in Burn Out? by Becca Syme. This is my second book by Syme that I’ve reviewed. Fans of the show may remember that I kicked off the second season of The Rookie Writer Show with Dear Writer, You Need to Quit.
Until then. . .
Happy writing, people!
If you found this useful, check out:
Or pick up his book (and throw a virtual handful of nickels at The Rookie Writer Show, through our affiliate program — at no extra cost to you, of course!)
Take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.
I’m also a real fan of Plottr, a tool that makes it all easier to keep your thoughts on your characters, settings, timelines, series bible, etc. organized. It’s $25 (one time or yearly if you want updates) and I am an affiliate because I LOVE it!! I know you’ve heard of Scrivener, which is great, too. But if I had to choose just one, I’d choose Plottr. That’s how much I love this tool. It doesn’t have the drafting feature that Scrivener does, but it’s far more intuitive and user-friendly as an outlining or revision tool than anything I’ve ever seen or used.
In other Dair-related news:
I have a book out! If you’re at home with your kids and need some fresh ideas to keep them sane, engaged, and entertained, check out Happy Busy Kids: 50+ Dairbrained Ideas, Games & Projects. I’m donating 30% of the profits to the COVID19 projects of First Book, No Kid Hungry, and Prevent Child Abuse America. And for free resources and more ideas, visit HappyBusyKids.com.
Fellow author Robin Knabel and I recently posted a new episode of our podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of The Chill by Scott Carson. Visit www.UnsettlingReads.com to browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. And look for Robin’s short story appearing in the summer issue of The Raven Review! Huge congrats, Robin!!
To find out what I’ve been working on, fiction-wise, visit www.HDairBrown.com. Sign up for the email list, and I’ll send you a free story every month. Just one email a month. I promise not to inundate you. I hate a pesky emailer!
Finally, to help you keep track of both your writing goals and your time, visit TheRookieWriter.net and sign up for the email list to get a free undated quarterly version of The Rookie Writer Playbook (a planner/organizer just for writers) to try out. And, of course, The Rookie Writer Etsy shop has full annual, dated Writing Planners available, along with a few other tools and fun swag for writers. Now on sale for 50% off!