Today’s book review, of Short Stories and How to Write Them by Kath McGurl is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey.
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Short Stories and How to Write Them
Synopsis: This book is for writers and readers of women’s magazine stories. It contains fourteen of the author’s short stories, plus discussion and advice on how to write your own. What are the elements of a successful magazine story? How should you structure your story? How important is dialogue? Where can you get ideas for stories? All these questions and many more are answered in this book, and illustrated by the stories included.
This book is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Short-Stories-Write-Them-ebook/dp/B00FT67LAM and http://www.amazon.com/Short-Stories-Write-Them-ebook/dp/B00FT67LAM.
Kathleen McGurl lives in Bournemouth with her husband and teenage sons. She always wanted to write, and for many years was waiting until she had the time. Eventually she came to the bitter realisation that no one would pay her for a year off work to write a book, so she sat down and started to write one anyway. Since then she has sold dozens of short stories to women’s magazines. These days she is concentrating on longer fiction, and is currently completing her second full-length novel. She works full time in the IT industry and when she’s not writing, she’s often out running, slowly. Kath’s website is http://kathleenmcgurl.com.
The friendly introduction asks (and explains) ‘what is a short story?’ before going back in time to Aristotle and his… Epic (as in Lord Of The Rings), Tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) and Comedy (Mills & Boon)… This analysis (minus my Mills & Boon example) reminded me of one of my favourite films, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ which all writers, and readers, should watch.
We were then lead on to ‘different types of stories’ before launching into the first story in this collection, ‘High Fliers’, a first-person piece between a grandmother and her daughter (talking about the granddaughter) – including a lovely phrase at the end of the last but one paragraph, which I won’t share because it’ll give away the plot but you’ll know it when you see it. After each story is an analysis of the story with tips on various aspects of writing. After ‘High Fliers’ was on characters, perfect timing as my beginners class tonight is on getting ideas, characters and locations so I’ll certainly be using Kath’s character questions then (attributed to her, of course). Kath goes on to talk about point of view (which I’ll be discussing with my class next week) and settings, which we’re also covering tonight.
The second story in the collection, ‘On the Road to Katmandu’, is also a first-person point of view story, this time in present tense. Apart from being set in a foreign location, it’s particularly descriptive which is a pleasure to read, and again this story has charming phrases. Interestingly, as Kath later explains, this story started from a one-word prompt of ‘dust’ and it’s one of the exercises I’ve used with my Monday night (‘Ideas & Inspiration’) students – albeit with a different word, although I might try this one and see what they come up with. Kath then talks about dialogue, a very important aspect in short stories.
Story number three, ‘Trapped!’, is another first person but reverts back to past tense. The first line is dialogue, always a good opener, but ends ‘called Anne’. I have a bugbear with inverted dialogue tags. I’d love to know your opinion of them. Why not just say ‘Anne called’? The next line ends ‘I replied’ so I’d be interested to know, if you mix the tag order, as Kath has done with this piece, why you do it. I love the premise of this story, although the repetition (three) of the phrase ‘the client from hell’ grated on me, but then I’m a stickler for repetition only being used to emphasise, not remind, and this story is just – as Kath tells us – 700 words. I loved the ending though so it didn’t spoil the story enough.
The next story’s title intrigued me; ‘The Fearsome Threesome of Pelham Post Office’. The first paragraph explains who the threesome is and why they’re fearsome (they convinced me). This story, another first-person, is told by a teenager. Initially I imaged a female teen, because we’re in women’s magazine mode, but the least fearsome of the threesome called him Simon Armitage (isn’t he a poet / novelist in real life?). This is the funniest story so far then as the drama (which is still loaded with humour) takes off, I’m with Simon as he says he was ‘riveted’. At the beginning of the book, Kath provides us with a list of five story categories and this one was clearly a 1. (Humour – farce).
Before the fifth story, Kath recommends for writers to let their stories stew; so once you’ve written the first draft, leave it for a couple of weeks then go back to it before making changes.
It’s interesting that Kath then gave us another first-person short story, ‘Rosie’s Legacy’. I didn’t think magazines were fans of first-person stories so I’m interested to see what percentage of this collection is in this viewpoint. This story was a 5. (Emotional. Makes you cry). I’m a slush-bucket and cry at most movies (happy or sad) and although I didn’t shed any tears for this story, I did feel my nose tingle (usually an early indication).
Next up, ‘The Church of Mary O’Reilly’, Kath tells us, alternates two time periods so I was particularly interested to see how this would work. My nose tingled again in this story and another piece with great writing. As Kath reminds us, you need to do your research (especially) with historical pieces but don’t put in so much that you overload the reader, or make them feel that you’re showing off, and in this story there’s just enough.
‘Breaking Point’ starts as all good stories should, with the conflict in the first line (also dialogue). We often read (and write) fiction to escape from our normal lives and the dramas that this family is facing certainly made me appreciate my fairly uneventful life. Despite all the trauma, the story is another category 5 and again, very well written (as I’ve now come to expect from Kath). Kath then goes on to talk about editing and reminds us to leave a gap in time between the first draft and editing process (and to read our writing out loud).
‘Queen of the Dawn’ was the next intriguing title and unsurprisingly, this is also first person. My house is only 1930s so not 1700s as the one featured in the story but it also has creaking floorboards and I often have to avoid them when passing one of my lodger’s bedroom on the way from my ‘office’ to my bedroom so I was with our character from the first paragraph. The second mentions avoid Lego, in my case it’s dog toys / chews.
From the multitude of writing websites, Kath points out www.write-invite.com. I’ve heard of, and visited, it but never done the Saturday night challenge. A site to bookmark for sure and I’ve added it to this blog’s Links page.
Kath then moves on to the problem that most of us suffer from; not having enough time in our days. As she rightly says, “Never say you have no time.” I’ve written a novel every November from 2008 and November / April from 2013 because of NaNoWriMo’s challenge. I find the time. As I’ve told my students, 300 words a day = 100,000 words a year (109,500 in an average year / 109,800 in a leap year) so everyone can write a novel in a year. This topic is then following by finding inspiration which talks about writer’s block. Crime writer Mark Billingham doesn’t believe it in (and equates it to plumber’s block). I sort of agree in respect of always having something to write about, but there are times when I come to a halt, not knowing where the story goes next so I put it to one side and come back to it later. If I’ve slept in the time between then, that helps too.
The next story was ‘The Missing Piece’, another story featuring a male character (again I thought unusual in women’s fiction) but this time – our first – in third person point of view (he/she). Yet again I engaged with this from the off because we have a dilemma but mostly because it starts in a store’s book department – most writers love stories featuring writing. Even though Marge is physically missing from this story, the interaction and reflection is charming. I hadn’t finished the story when I decided that it (along with the fearsome threesome) would be one of my favourites as soon as the Parisian bench was mentioned. At the end of the story, I wasn’t wrong.
Kath then gives us some ‘rules of writing’ and I’d agree with them all. I’d also add ‘Well,’ to the list of words to avoid (Kath gives ‘that’) and some stories have been littered with ‘Well’s at the beginning of sentences, some appearing one under another. It’s OK occasionally in speech, but one or two per story, I’d say. Kath uses the word in her story – and in the educational narrative – so she may disagree with me.
Just the title of ‘I Don’t Know Who to Pick’ had me harking back to school sports teams – a thought that filled me with icy clichéd dread (I was invariably one of the last and stuck in goal). I was pleased to learn (in the second paragraph) that it’s a wedding dilemma. Phew. We’re back to first-person present tense for this one, although it swiftly reflects in third person past tense. I guessed the ending of this story but again, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment.
‘The Bet’ sees the return of Clive (in name at least) and a story – one of the shortest – with plenty of hooks to keep me reading (even if I hadn’t have been reviewing this book). A brilliant story with an unexpected ending, which make the hooks make sense. Kath then goes on to point out the duplication of Clive’s name for different characters and said she often – unintentionally – uses the same names. I’m rather the same with Norman, Albert, Jack and – if I could – I’d call all my characters Elliot.
Things turn serious when Kath talks about rejections but they are a likelihood in every writer’s career. Dean Koontz received c.500 and it didn’t do him any harm. This little peak behind the scenes at the magazines was certainly an eye opener. Another website mentioned was Nicola Morgan’s online shop. I certainly know of Nicola (and our paths have crossed once or twice online) but I didn’t know she had a shop. Another site to bookmark (alongside The Literary Gift Company).
Keeping on the serious (and a little sad) note, the next story, Kath said “It’s one I felt quietly proud of from the moment I finished it. That doesn’t often happen”. What a shame. This statement lead to ‘Finding Mum’ (present tnse first-person) and I can see why she was proud of it. I would have been (my father suffered from dementia and I wrote a similar story ‘Sometimes I forget’ in the first volume of my Fifty 5pm Fictions collections). ‘Finding Mum’ reminded me of drawing Medusa on my old room at my parents’ house which my Dad subsequently painted over with peach(!) paint when I bought my first house and he took over my old room for his office. This story, Kath later explains, was prompted by a photograph and it’s one of the exercises I used with my first ‘Ideas’ class. Many aspiring writers ask of those more established how they get their ideas and so it’s a pleasure to show my students that it’s really not that hard.
I love questions as titles and next up is ‘Did I Hit An Angel?’ which takes us back to third-person past tense. Kath is also the author of Ghost Stories and How to Write Them which I have and shall be reviewing in May.
The final story in this collection is ‘Père Noël Pops The Question’. Although French is my rustiest language, I know enough to expect a Christmas story, and I love the fact that the main character (a male again) is Nick (as many Europeans call Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus) ‘Saint Nicholas’). Another funny and touching story.
Kath concludes by talking about proofreading. Don’t just rely on your computer’s spell / grammar check. Read it thorough (after you’ve left it for a while / read it out loud).
Rating for Short Stories and How to Write Them: 4 out of 5.
Apart from being a delightful collection of short stories, there is a generous selection of tips on improving your writing, as discussions rather than lectures, so ideal for writers of all abilities. I’ve been writing for eight years and it’s how I make part of my living (albeit a small part, at present – I’m also a freelance editor and tutor) and I still learned a thing or three.
A downside? Apart from some really picky (I’m a freelance editor, I can’t help it) anomalies – which I’ve emailed to Kath so she’ll probably never speak to me again 🙂 and I assure you, didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this collection, it’s a great collection. I review short stories and writing guides and this is a mixture of both, so a perfect choice for a cold winter’s Wednesday morning (yes, I reviewed this the same day as the post went up – that’s how my life tends to work these days).
Reviewing this book is so timely; Kath mentions Della Galton a couple of times and Della is one of my writing groups’ short story competition judge (H.E. Bates) this year and she’s doing our prize-giving this Friday here in Northampton (at Moulton Theatre, if you’re in the UK and want to come along) so it’ll be great to finally meet her.
I shall be reviewing Della’s The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed in March, and as I mentioned earlier, Kath’s Ghost Stories how-to in May.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, 40-something Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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3 thoughts on “Book review – for readers and writers – no.25: Morgen Bailey reviews Kath McGurl’s Short Stories and How to Write Them”
Thank you so much for the wonderful review, Morgen! I am glad you liked the book.
I suppose there are quite a few first person stories in it. Maybe I sold more first than third person – not sure. I should count up.
As for whether women’s magazines prefer first or third, present or past tense – it all depends on the magazine. The Weekly News prefers third person, past tense. Take A Break don’t mind first or third, but definitely prefer past tense (they altered Finding Mum from present to past for publication). Woman’s Weekly will take any, as long as it’s well written.
And although most stories tend to have a female MC that’s not a set-in-stone rule. All the stories in my book were published in the mags and as you spotted, there are a number of male MCs in there!
I picked the stories for the book not necessarily to be a representative sample of what the mags publish, but to illustrate the points I wanted to make.
Thanks once again, and I look forward to your review of Ghost Stories and How to Write Them!
You’re very welcome, Kath. Thanks for the info. I’ll add it to https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/submission-information/submissions-flash-fiction-short-stories/submissions-womens-magazines.