Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 3, 2018

Reading for Writers: The Art of Fiction


J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, fall leaves, cocoa, open book

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash


October! Time for colorful leaves, pumpkins, apples, and tasty autumn recipes.

I do love fall…even when it feels more like summer…especially when it brings an end to countless days of overcast and rain.

For me, fall is the best time for “spring cleaning.” In spring I’d rather be outside working in the garden, enjoying the flowers and the return of warmer weather. Fall is the time to do more serious cleaning and get the place spiffed up for the holidays.

At present, my house is sorely in need of cleaning. Because of my back problems, two surgeries, and lengthy recovery, I haven’t done much leaning for several years. Even now I have to divide the job into small projects and take my time doing them.

Recently, my bookshelves caught my attention. As you can see in the photo below, the books are stuffed into the selves and dust covered.


J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, bookshelf, books


One jumbled shelf holds my collection of books about writing. Although my husband gently suggests that I borrow such books from the library, I prefer to have the paper books in hand so that I can highlight things in them as I read. I don’t know if that helps the ideas sink into my mind, but I do it anyway—just like I did with textbooks in college.

I may no longer be in college, but writers, like those in most professions, never stop learning. In addition to learning through the experience of writing and critiquing others’ works, writers attend workshops and conferences, take classes, and share insights with fellow writers, either through face to face conversations or through blog posts or books about writing.

Since I have a number of writing books and have found value in every one I’ve read, I’ve have been thinking off and on that I should write a post about writing books, and coming across the shelf full of books has finally nudged me into doing that.

I originally intended to just provide a list of books, but I’ve decided to write a series of posts and go into more detail about each book. Some of the books on my shelf feature on a particular aspect of writing, such as world building or characterization. Other books cover a broader range of topics.

The first book I’m going to feature is one of the latter: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. I’ve heard a number of writers recommend this book, and it’s well worth reading. Although the subtitle claims it’s for young writers, Gardner’s words can offer insights for writers of any age.


J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, open book



Reading for Writers:
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
by John Gardner


John Gardner was a respected writer, essayist, literary critic, and teacher. The Art of Fiction was completed shortly before his death and published posthumously. The book is divided into two main parts—Part I: Notes on Literary-Aesthetic Theory, and Part II: Notes on the Fictional Process. Following these is a section of writing exercises.

The first part of the book is a discussion of fiction as an art and the writer as an artist.

Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there…It’s feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportions of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things.

One of the things I find especially interesting in the first part is Garner’s discussion of the dream which the writer of fiction needs to create for the reader.

Whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind…If the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must be vivid and continuous…One of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.

In the second part of the book, Gardner shifts the focus to craft. He takes a look at common errors (inappropriate or excessive use of passive voice, lack of sentence variety, accidental rhyme, shifts in psychic focus, and more); technique, or manipulation of the fictional elements (structural units, characters, sentences, point of view, style, and more); and ways of plotting different forms of fiction.

The exercises in the final section of the book include not only individual writing exercises but cooperative exercises that could be used by writing groups or classes.


J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, sunset


Although this book is primarily for fiction writers, it could prove helpful for nonfiction writers as well. Look for it in your local library.


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