Today’s book review is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey.
The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed
Synopsis: Originally written as a series for Writers’ Forum Magazine, this snappy, no-nonsense guide has been expanded, amended and updated. Using new examples from her own published short fiction, Della Galton takes you from ‘story idea’ to ‘final edit’, and demonstrates how to construct and polish the perfect short story, ready for publication. Available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Short-Story-Writers-Toolshed-Straight-To-The-Point-ebook/dp/B00A9WATS2 and http://www.amazon.com/Short-Story-Writers-Toolshed-Straight-To-The-Point-ebook/dp/B00A9WATS2.
Just looking at the contents pages of this short (95 pages in the paperback version) book is a little… to use my mum’s favourite word at Christmas / on her birthday… overwhelming, but just like those celebratory days, this promises a wealth of goodies.
After the ‘About Della Galton’ page, there is an ‘Introduction’, ‘How the Toolshed Works’, ‘A Look Around The Toolshed’, then the index is split into shelves: 1. Ideas and Getting Started; 2. Plot; 3. Characters and Viewpoint; 4. Dialogue; 5. Structure; 6. Time Span, Pace and Theme; 7. Flashback; 8. Cutting and Editing; 9. Putting it all together; 10. Rejection and Motivation; and then some closing sections including ‘A Last Word From Me’. Just looking at how many sections there are in each shelf, I know I’m in for a treat. Mmm… goodies, treats… can you tell I’ve been on a diet healthy-eating kick since last June?
After Della’s impressive CV (selling more short stories per year – 80 – than many short story authors have in total), the introduction explains that the toolshed was originally written as a series for Writer’s Forum magazine. I’ve been a subscriber to that (and others) since 2005 so in theory I’ve read everything contained in this book but – and I’ve probably mentioned this before – I have a terrible memory so I’m sure most of it will feel new. That said, I’ve been a short story writer for more of the last nine years than not (I’ve written a mere 400+, mostly flash fiction) and teach creative writing for my local county council (have I mentioned that before?) 🙂 so in theory I know quite a lot about short stories but Della is without doubt the queen (what’s higher than a queen… goddess?) of the form so I’m sitting comfortable and am ready to begin.
In answer to ‘What is a Short Story?’, Della compares writing a short story vs novel to painting a miniature vs a full-size painting. As she so brilliantly says, “It should have all the depth and colour that a full-size canvas allows, but there is no room for waffle.” She then talks about lengths of short stories (how long is a piece of string?) before moving on to characters. As most writers know, they are what makes any kind of story, short or otherwise. If we don’t care about our characters (and Della confirms this), then the story can have the most fantastic plot but by the time they’ve saved the world, we won’t care whether they’re OK or not. In this section, Della says that one of the most important things she’s ever learned about short story writing is that you don’t add characters when adding length to your story but add depth to the ones you have. She adds that it applies to serials and novels too. Interesting.
Assisting newbie writers, Della briefly explains viewpoint, dialogue and plot. I particularly liked the explanation of plot where Della says the character has a problem at the start and has solved it by the end but there should be surprises along the way. And don’t we just love surprising our characters… and therefore our readers. Next up are Setting, Pace and time span, Flashback, Structure, and finally Theme which Della explains is “the glue that holds the story together”.
Now we have Shelf One – Ideas and Getting Started. After a suggestion for a plot, using the never-aging ‘What if?”, Della takes us straight into beginnings and gives us some examples of hers with an analysis between each one. She then explains the difference between linear events and plot which takes us neatly on to the next section. Plot. In this section, Della talks about idea vs plot, lengths of story in plot terms, scenes and very short stories (flash fiction). In the latter, she suggests using no more than two or three scenes, an incredibly useful way of explaining this form. I was going to mention this book anyway (and have already) in my evening classes but even if I didn’t read another word of it, I’d recommend it for just this section. Of course I will read another word of it, I have another 79% to go (thank you, Kindle app).
Shelf Two covers plot, and where would be with a plot. We love (or hate) our characters but we have to have something happening to them. In this section (shelf), Della gives us some example scenes when talking about word length, alongside ‘show’ vs ‘tell’, the most important (in my opinion) weapon in a writer’s arsenal. Can you have too little or too much plot? Della explains that you can and shows you how to cure it.
Shelf Three takes us on to character and viewpoint, and as she says, they are the heart of every story and shows us why.
Shelf Four covers dialogue and Della and I are alike; we both love writing dialogue (and I much prefer reading it to long chunks of description) and she shows how to write it so it’s realistic yet not exactly as we speak – an art in itself.
Structure is the theme for Shelf Five and Della summarises structure in three stages: 1. Introduce character with problem; 2. Develop problem; 3. Have character solve problem, with or without a twist. And ‘have character solve problem’ is key. No one should do it for them or it’s a cop-out.
Shelf Six discusses ‘Time span, pace and theme’, and covers a lot (whether your story should cover a few minutes, days, weeks, the speed of the writing – often determined by long / short sentences, and the theme (topic) of the piece) in just a few words.
Speaking of timing, Shelf Seven’s theme is ‘Flashback’. Stories should start with action so many will then go to a flashback to explain the action. It’s a hard area to do well so writing guides such as Della’s are invaluable.
One of my favourite aspects of writing is covered in Shelf Eight: ‘Cutting and Editing’… but then it’s my favourite when it comes to other people’s stories. Cutting and editing mine is far more difficult because I know what I mean. Della shares with us three suggestions for editing and even if you just had these in your toolbox, you’d go far.
Shelf Nine is entitled ‘Putting it all together’ and talks about the necessary evil that is marketing and market research. Out of the 900+ authors I’ve interviewed, I’d say over 90% have listed marketing as their least favourite aspect of their writing lives. Few publishers these days have a budget for marketing their authors, especially new authors, so it’s up to us to market ourselves and our writing (yes, we are as important as our writing because if you can’t remember who the author is, how are you going to recommend them?). Della also guides us along the submission process and assures us that ‘getting into print is surprisingly simple. You have to write what others want to read’. I think we just have to work out what others want. 🙂 Della’s list of ‘Eleven Qualities A Professional Writer Needs’ reminds me of Izzy’s wants list in my The Serial Dater’s Shopping List novel but replacing Della’s ‘patience’ with Izzy’s ‘tall’.
After some competition tips, comes Shelf Ten, ‘Rejection and Motivation’. I talked about this with my students as part of the final session of the term and said it was inevitable that they would receive rejections but that the acceptances would make them easier to bear. Another reassurance from Della was that she’d received rejections for eleven short stories and one serial – in one day! Wow. Della did go on to say that she’s sold ten stories in one week so that would definitely help ease the ‘pain’. I’ve only received around 40 in my ‘career’, but then I’m fairly rubbish at sending things out.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It doesn’t happen often but I couldn’t fault this book… and I’m a hard taskmistress.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, 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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