My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Master Class in Fiction Writing (2006) by Adam Sexton is a useful tool and guide along the way of crafting memorable fiction. There is, however, something to be said about craft books on writing and their humble aim to produce better writers. And the something that should be said is that more of such books are printed annually with readers, namely would-be-hopeful-disillusioned writers, snatching them up in blissful dreams of making it BIG: getting into print and becoming an official, real-live NYC official author (whatever that really is I do not claim or pretend to know).
The other something that also should be added is that once a writer has made it into print, after the publishing company has bought over 100,000 copies or more to cover the writer’s advance and to securely place that writer’s name and book on the New York Times Best-Seller List, which doesn’t hurt promoting future books, the publishing world will likely and greedily chew these brave writers up and happily spit them out. So, what’s the point?
After all, publishing has now become a print-on-demand business venture—especially with Random House and Penguin’s recent merger, and the other major publishers caught in a never-ending battle against Giant Amazon—and Money, not Art, is to be made. Nevertheless, writers seek out craft books that should inspire and mitigate a transition from non-published, abject writer to non-published, abject writer that is slightly better in ability and skill. Or so the case may seem to some.
“For in each generation,” writes Ford Madox Ford in The English Novel as if it were yesterday, “an enormous amount of insipid art is turned out by inferior students receiving their instruction at the hands of academic instructors. That cannot be helped. But the fact remains that to a real master possessed of a real individuality the study of methods of his predecessors must be of enormous use” (118).
The fact does remain, however, that writers, published or not, student or scholar, are often guided—to a mountaintop or off a cliff—by such attempts to explain the mad, complex world of writing.
In Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton’s attempt to produce better writers, readers are left with a vast amount of knowledge designed more to express the author’s skill as a Brobdingnagian reader—matched, luckily, by this reader—than to form a coherent, structured plan on fiction writing.
To begin, Master Class in Fiction Writing must be purchased along with several other key works in literature if the craft book is to be fully understood, and Mr. Sexton recommends (coming non to short to that of an official order) for the reader to stop at each chapter and read another novel—not the best approach for any writer, experienced or otherwise. The only exception is in the first chapter, titled “Story Structure: ‘Araby’”, where Sexton reprints James Joyce’s short story in its entirety. The following chapters coincide with these readings in exact order: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad; Rabbit, Run by John Updike; Iris Murdoch’s 1961 novel A Severed Head; As I lay Dying by Faulkner; Beloved by Toni Morrison; A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway; and, finally—gasp!—Lolita by Nabokov.
No wonder Sexton calls it a “master class” and that it is; but just by taking a look at this list one should quickly ascertain that this craft book will likely instruct the writer in how to be a better reader of literature and establish a keen skill on how to analyze such books in the future. Most serious writers, therefore, will have read these works—luckily, I had—and Sexton’s craft book can be read uninterrupted and with relative ease. For the amateur reader, however, Master Class in Fiction Writing will actually cost more time and more money than other craft books on writing that are out there due to the fact that Sexton requires an accompaniment of other books to support his insights on how to become a better writer (/reader).
Since Sexton often requires the reader to leave his book in order to read another, a writer might be better served closing Sexton’s book and picking up Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. In about as many pages as Master Class in Fiction Writing, Writing Tools accomplishes what Sexton attempts to do but eventually falters and staggers into more rumination than prescriptive or descriptive instruction. Clark in Writing Tools skilfully guides the reader-writer from the lowest forms of grammar (e.g., subject and verbs, adverbs, punctuation, etc.) through a helpful instruction on special effects, including seeking original images to varying sentence and paragraph length for effect to tuning the voice of the writer.
Clark continues in the last half of the book to delve deeper into the larger schemes of novel writing, which includes using dialogue as form of an action and the writer’s goal of generating suspense and internal cliffhangers; the final section suggests useful habits before, during, and after the act of writing. Writing Tools is a well-rounded craft book that allows the reader to read a chapter each week and finish the novel in one year. The reader, however, will not want to put this book down.
Returning to Sexton’s master class, much can be taken from the book to apply to the trade of writing. Master Class in Fiction Writing is much broader in scope than Writing Tools, and to some readers this is needed to proceed to a higher level of learning. Sexton weaves the alternative reading assignments flawlessly into lectures on conflict, climax, characterizing, plot, observation, descriptive writing, dramatic tension, attributives, and point-of-view, to name a few. The final two sections covering A Farewell to Arms and Lolita are exceptional in their analysis but somewhat lacking in their duties to teach writers how to become better. It is like having a tour guide point to “La Joconde” and tell the would-be painter everything he knows of how Leonardo da Vinci came to create such a beautiful and masterful work of art portraying a plain woman sitting and smiling. Such artists need this, and for those artists Sexton aims his mental prowess.
At one point, Sexton explains that A Farewell to Arms is “the rare novel that lacks not only consequences but significant exposition, as well—a feat presumably close to impossible that Hemingway nonetheless accomplishes with aplomb” (188).
The first sentence of the following paragraph reads: “The structure of A Farewell to Arms is classic: Frederic wants Catherine” (Sexton 188).
On and on Sexton proceeds, as he has done through the entire book, more captivated by the sound of his own voice than providing clear and coherent instruction in how to write better. He does shine, however, in occasional moments of clarity and wit.
In Chapter 9: “The World of Story: Lolita”, Sexton extrapolates on technique: “With a strong conflict at his story’s core, a writer is actually freer to characterize more deeply, to describe at greater length” (203); and later on page 209:
The writer’s description of even the most ordinary aspects of a scene is physical and focused, as on page 92 when Lolita comes to Humbert “dimly depraved, the lower buttons of her shirt unfastened.” Sure Nabokov serves up an abstract generalization (“dimly depraved”), but he immediately supports that with concrete specifics (“the buttons”). Lolita’s physical setting has been observed and described with a combination of precision (one of the writer’s favorite words) and originality that is almost peerless.
It is in these moments that Sexton truly shines and is well-worth the time and effort of reading. He is able to explain a writing skill and produce simultaneously a vivid example from a notable book (the same is also true for Clark’s Writing Tools).
What also make Master Class in Fiction Writing a rather handy book to have around the writing desk are the “Suggestions for Further Reading” sections Sexton places at the end of each chapter.
What we don’t have here—don’t mind the Guns N’ Roses pun—is a failure to communicate, either with Clark or Sexton. Clark’s Writing Tools is an extremely useful book for any writer, amateurish or seasoned, while Sexton’s Master Class in Fiction Writing is aimed at a much finer point on the reader-writer spectrum. If Sexton’s book is a “master class” then let Clark’s Writing Tools be an “undergraduate review” in writing, at the most basic and most complex levels.
Needless to say, both these books are going to add value to any writer who reads them, and Ford was surely correct when he surmised: “If what you write is to please you must see how your predecessors did it” (139).
And that is why, for most—those crazed-dedicated who seek publication—writing and reading are such a grand pleasure to be had.
Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (2006). New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
Ford, Ford Madox. The English Novel (1930). Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1997. Print.
Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers