by James Scott Bell
Book Review and Commentary November 15, 2016
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”
Edgar Allan Poe
I love short stories and have been reading at least one a week for the past 4 years for this blog and for years before that. A short story is a great lunch companion, especially if you are reading some of the great flash fiction that’s out there these days. Did you ever wonder who wrote the first short story? Scheherazade and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, right? I suppose some might say the Bible were the first stories. Others claim Sir Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827 was the official first short story published.
But what are the elements of a good short story? I’ve been writing short stories and novels for some 20 years, and creatively speaking they demand the same skills and practice for storytelling and characterization. A short story traditionally focuses on one incident, a single plot, a single setting, often limited to a few characters, and proceeds over a short period of time. At its core, it produces a single narrative effect and that’s why it works so well with an afternoon pot of tea and a tuna sandwich.
For readers, we want drama, suspense, a unified impression, vivid sensations, action, climax, thrilling characters, and a satisfactory resolution. And we want it in one sitting and in less than 6000 words. This is not a small achievement! How does a writer do it? Lots of hard work and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.
Author Kurt Vonnegut offers eight essential tips on how to write a short story:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
But this really doesn’t give you enough if you are a new to writing short fiction or struggling to be a successful short story writer out there in the highly competitive publishing market. And I can tell you from experience, becoming a short story writer has just as many challenges and obstacles as becoming a novelist. These days, writing the story is one side of the work; then there’s the “getting it published” or marketing it yourself.
Fortunately, James Scott Bell has written a book that addresses both writing and marketing. This book will grow your writing skills on voice and POV, give you the keys to make your reader feel the characters in your story, and the discover the best structure for short fiction. How do you find your story? Need a road map? Bell has got it for you. And once you get your story written, Bell gives you tips on getting it edited, into a professional electronic format, with book cover. And he identifies publications submission options as well as advice on getting it up on Amazon.com if you choose to self-publish. The beauty of this book is that it gives you the full distance, from start-up to writing down the bones and to getting it to readers.
Bell uses examples from the best writers (Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Stephen King, and many others) and gives you 5 excellent short stories to read to set the bar for you. One big disappointment, though, in this book is that Bell didn’t spot a single female author in all his examples and writing samples. Our literary world is loaded with talented and smart women writers. Why was there no mention of Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Daphne du Maurier, Joyce Carol Oates, Kate Chopin, Kelly Link, Mary Shelley, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf (some of whose short stories can be found here on this blog site via the index).
James Scott Bell is an award-winning (Christy Award) best-selling author of seven thrillers, and several writing craft books: Voice, the Power of Great Writing; Super Structure; Just Write; The Mental Game of Writing; and more.
My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.
Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest
(book review here)
Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, & Screen, by Robert McKee (book review here)
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker), Annotated by Mort Castle (book review here) (Also The Annotated Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) Annotated by K.M. Weiland)
How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Editor Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek (book review here)
Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)
Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps Structure, Steven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay
Comments are welcome, please!