Writers on Writing: Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight

There are a wealth of books on writing out in the world, from the good to the bad to the absolute nonsense—and a lot of them are by writers of speculative fiction. Writers on Writing is a short series of posts devoted to reviewing and discussing books on the craft that were written by SFF(&H) authors, from Nancy Kress to John Scalzi. Whether you’re a beginning writer, a seasoned pro or a fan, these nonfiction outings can be good reads. They have something different to offer each level of experience, be it useful advice or just the pleasure of reading.

Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight was first published in 1981, and the edition I have is the “revised and expanded 3rd,” the only one still in print. It is devoted to the exploration of how to write short fiction, but the advice offered therein works just as well when it comes to structuring longer works. While the Nancy Kress book Beginnings, Middles and Ends dealt with a specific bit of what makes structure, Knight’s book is an overview of all the pieces.

It’s a classic that many folks in the genre swear by and was also one of the most-suggested books when I began this series. After reading it, I can see why.

It may seem like a nerdy thing to be overjoyed by, but I love the extremely detailed table of contents. It’s the first thing a reader sees when they open the book and it allows one to easily take stock of what seems most interesting—or, after reading it once, to pick out what should be returned to. The book has six major sections, each subdivided into several lessons relating to the topic at hand. There are exercises, illustrations, and examples throughout, each further expanding upon the idea he’s trying to examine for the reader. It’s a well laid out text, possibly one of the best I’ve read so far when it comes to sheer organizational clarity.

As for the content, it begins as a text for the truly new writer, but by the end it has begun to delve into problems more likely to pop up for early-stage professionals. I get the feeling that Knight was writing everything he’d learned from writing and teaching writing, and to be honest, it works for me. I might not be able to pinpoint a “perfect” audience, but the book is still going to work remarkably well for many writers in many stages of development. After all, there are plenty of brilliant novelists who have Issues with the short story as a format.

The introduction (“Three Reasons Why I Should Not Have Written This Book”) is one of the better explanations for “why write a guidebook” I’ve encountered, and it holds some truths that no other writing guide I’ve happened upon so far has mentioned. For one, it is possible to freeze up your creative process by introducing too much new technique and theory to it all at once. “You may stifle your creativity by learning too much about processes that should be spontaneous and automatic,” he says, and I think he’s quite right. This ties into his actual engagement with the subconscious aspects of writing, which I also loved—many guidebook writers don’t want to sound too woo-woo, so they avoid discussing the subconscious and “magic”-seeming bits of the process, which is a disservice. They aren’t magic, they’re just part of how our brains work, and our brains can be trained. That Knight goes there and deals with the more “mystical” aspects of the job with flat-out analysis is great. (More on that further on.) He also encourages readers at the end to explore the book however they wish and not necessarily in linear order, which leads me to think that the text really is intended for use by folks of differing skill levels.

The first section, “Developing Your Talent as a Writer,” is extremely basic: how to see, how to hear, how to interpret as a writer, and the four (early) stages of a writer’s development. Most people consulting a guidebook will probably be at the third step, and some at the fourth. The best part of the early section is the last, “Collaborating with Fred,” which deals with engaging the subconscious and learning how to train it to respond to you—and you to it. That’s by far the best part of the beginning section, as it deals in a concrete way with a process that can seem less than concrete when the writer is experiencing it. After all, it sounds odd to discuss “feelings” we have about stories, but that’s just how it works.

Next comes “Idea into Story,” which explores all the basic mechanics of structuring a tale. The best part is the illustrations, which are almost insanely helpful: each one is very clear, very concise and infinitely useful. The ideas are basic, like the necessity of balancing a story with four corners (like tent poles!), and supporting the center with theme. The types of plot and types of endings are also good to have thoroughly explained.

“Beginning of a Story” explores where to start and how to do so, while offering different options for what a writer can do. It also has a chart of points-of-view with check boxes for which versions work in which situations. The quick-reference thing is just great, and for a beginner, I can’t even imagine how useful it might be. (I wish I’d had this book as a teenager, I’ll just put it that way.)

The fourth section, “Controlling a Story,” contains one of my favorite lines in the whole book: “One of the great rewards of a writer’s life is that it lets you read all the books you want to without feeling guilty.” This section is concerned mostly with what happens once you’ve got the basics down—how to manipulate the audience, to capture their attention and hold it, how to make your actual, line-by-line writing pop. These are the more difficult and precise skills a writer must develop. As Knight says, you can go on writing bad stories all you want and you might even sell a few, but you won’t write anything good unless you shoot for a higher goal than you can actually reach. Mastering tone, mood, dialect and all of the stylistic concerns will take a writer one step closer to great stories.

“Finishing a Story” is a section all on its own devoted to endings in various ways: dealing with getting stuck, with editors, writing for markets, revisions; all of the things that come after the first rush of the draft is done and it needs to be turned into something better. It’s the shortest section and the least in-depth, but there are many, many, many books on revision to be had out in the wide world. Reading one of them will fill in the gaps. (It’s also interesting to note how prescient Knight’s advice about markets and editors is, thirty-odd years later.)

“Being a Writer,” the final part of the book, deals with the “living” bits of the craft instead of the actual storywriting part, but it’s no less valuable. His bit on byline, I disagree with—my byline is not my legal name, because my legal name is so common that when you google it you would never in a million years actually get me, or anything I’d written. (I share a last name with a couple of presidents, let’s just put it that way.) The age of Google has changed things in this respect, I think. Many folks that I know use bylines that are bits and pieces of their real names (mine is, certainly), but are easier to spell/search/etc. However, the bit on “Pleasures and Pains” is excellent. It deals with the struggle to enjoy writing in periods of growth and learning, where all you can see is how flawed your work is. There’s a line that I’ve said and heard a million times: “What is worse than this is knowing what’s wrong with your stories, and still not being able to do anything about it.”

Sing it, Mr. Knight.

I appreciate that the book ended with a section on healthy survival for a writer, whereas the rest focused on the act of writing good short stories. Writing is not a mechanical pursuit; it is full-body and full-mind. The ability to survive as a writer is nearly as important as being able to write. (For more on that, refer back to Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife.)

As a whole, I can safely say that Knight’s Creating Short Fiction deserves the recommendations I received for it, and I wish I’d had it as a younger writer. It would have been a very helpful tool. The illustrations and exercises in particular make this book stand out, because they’re so damned effective and concise. Knight’s book is a keeper and I’m glad it’s still in print. It’s probably not going to be of much use to a professional, but everyone else at any level slightly below that will find it useful in some way or another. (That handy table of contents makes it so easy to find what you need, after all!)


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

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