Saturday 28 November 2009


I'm not an expert on short stories and I don't believe in pontificating about things I'm not an expert in. So, I'm calling in a proper expert and directing you over to her blog, where she's dissecting a story by a talented contemporary short story writer.

Yes, the thoughtful, cerebral and knowledgeable Sally Zigmond has used Vanessa Gebbie's Words from a Glass Bubble as an exemplar for some rules of short story-writing.

What are you waiting for? Off you go to Sally's post here, and then you can can follow her short series of lessons.

Then, if you are inspired [as I have just been] you can buy Vanessa's eponymous short story collection, ideally from the publisher's website  -  Salt Publishing.

Thing is, one of the most important things an aspiring writer must do is to read the work of others who are being successfully published in their desired genre. And I mean published now, not ten years ago. But it's not enough just to read: you have to read critically, analytically; you have to read like a writer, not only a reader.

I said aspiring writers should do this but in fact we should all do it. If you don't read the stuff that's being published by your contemporaries, how can you hold your head up as a writer? You're a hobbyist, not a professional, and you don't deserve publication, in my opinion. I don't know a single writer who can't talk passionately about the books in his or her field; but I have spoken to many unpublished writers who can't answer the question, "So, what contemporary writers do you admire?"

I recently asked an aspiring YA author what YA fiction she most admired. "Harry Potter," she answered. I almost dislocated my jaw.
[For the avoidance of doubt, the problem with this answer, as anyone claiming to be writing for teenagers/YA readers should know, is that the Harry Potter books are not YA. Technically they are pitched at the 9-12 range, though, of course, like very many books, they appeal to different ages as well. The answer sounds alarm bells. It tells me that the writer is not properly attuned to the age group he/she intends to write for. My reaction to the answer says absolutely nothing about my admiration for the story-telling skills of JKR, which are extensive and impressive, in my view. The post was not about whether any particular popular author was any good, but about a) short story writing and b) the importance of writers reading within their genre, something which I am going to post about properly very soon. As you know, I was away when the post went out and was very limited in my ability to comment and was completely unable to write another post. I am now going away again, having been in the house about two hours...]


HelenMWalters said...

I couldn't agree more. I have learnt so much about short story writing from the experts in the market I have chosen to write for. Della Galton and Teresa Ashby are both short story writers who are very generous with advice for others, and also experts on the market. I also know I would not have been published without the help of my online writing group which is also full of people who know the market well and write beautifully for it.

One of the saddest things I ever heard was at an evening class I attended a couple of years ago. The tutor asked everyone what they wanted to write. A lot of people had no idea - but, to be fair, it was an introductory course. Then she asked everyone what they liked to read. A really high proportion of the group said 'nothing'. It made me want to cry.

Unknown said...

The notion that as an aspiring writer you don't read contemporary fiction is alien to me, but just as Helen I too have encountered people who say their ambition lies in writing, but that they don't have any time to read! What?

Thank you Nicola for the link to short story writing. I need it as all my short stories try to become fully fledged novels.

Helena xx

Harry Markov said...

This reminds me that I have been covering my novel reading, but have been neglecting the short stories. Good thing I have some anthologies to work over for review purposes. Off to read and improve on myself. :)

PS: Thanks you for the link, oh wise one. :)

Administrator said...

Are you saying, Nicola, that one must be widely read in a particular genre before attempting to write for it?

Up until now i have written humorous chick lit and very much enjoy reading this genre. But, all of a sudden, i am inspired to write YA, not so humorous, because the plot i really want to write about doesn't 'fit' an adult genre so well.

So, am I supposed to read widely in YA before putting pen to paper?

I know Meyer (and another successful author i know) simply wrote the story they felt they had to write, and then the publishers tailored it for a particular market.

I suspect Rowling just started writing the story she wanted to - i wonder if she was widely read in her target market to start with (although wasn't she a teacher?)

I guess it just niggles me a bit, because as writers we are always being told to 'write the story we feel compelled to write' - and now i feel i'm being told, ooh, if you aren't well-read in YA, how can you possibly attempt to write it.


I'm sure you'll put me right:)

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Samantha - I'm away just now and it's tricky doing lengthy comments. Will answer properly in a few days - sorry! I'll do a full post on it as it's a v important question.

Administrator said...

Ah, great, thanks. Look forward to reading that.

Marisa Birns said...

Great post! Short story writing is what I am doing right now and your advice and link is appreciated.

Catherine Hughes said...

I have to say, the idea of a writer not also being an avid reader strikes me as very odd. I've been devouring books since I read 'A Wrinkle in Time' as a five year old (I may have been a little younger - my mum taught me to read very early on and it quickly became clear that I couldn't get enough).

I write for teenagers. Well, I think I do, but really, I just wrte what is in me to write, and I believe it is YA fiction. But we'll see, I guess.

I read everything - absolutely everything. When I was younger I loved historical fiction and romance. As I grew older, my abiding love for science fiction and fantasy became dominant, but I still read far and wide and not just within that genre, which is the one I write in.

If you told me that I could either watch television and movies or read, but not both, I would choose reading, for all that I love film and TV, too. Reading is an integral part of who I am.

Reading - widely - is what made me a (genre) writer.

So it really just doesn't make sense to me that a writer would not also be a passionate reader - of the genre they want to write in AND everything else that they can lay their hands on!

Isn't it all about the joy of language and communication, whichever angle you come at it from?

none said...

No, Rowling isn't widely read--which is obvious from her public statement that she 'didn't know' she was writing Fantasy, and of course from her books. Fortunately, her core readership isn't widely read, either.

Nicola Morgan said...

I am itching to do a long answer to all this and do a full post about it but have to wait till home. Bur two things:

First, nothing sensible or meaningful ever cones from using jk Rowling or stephanie meyer as an example

second, Jo Rowling is hugely widely read, including children's and fantasy. Her comment has been taken out of context.

Let me tackle this properly when I get a chance. But for now let me say that anyone who attempts to write in a genre which they never read is doing something very risky. And odd. And possibly (apologies) arrogant ... I would never dream of doing it and I can't see why anyone would want to. I think you have to love the genre or at least part of it, otherwise it's most unlikely to ring true. You will also break rules without realising - which may not matter but it may. Sorry, will explain further when I have time.

Jen Campbell said...

"First, nothing sensible or meaningful ever cones from using JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer as an example."

Amen to that.

Bethany Wiggins said...

I think reading and writing go hand in hand. As for YA stuff I admire... The Hunger Games. Speak. How to Take the Ex Out of Ex-boyfriend. Shiver. The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
I could go on and on, but I'll spare you!

Sally Zigmond said...

Not sure I'm that much of an expert, Nicola, but thank you for linking to my blog. I'm delighted if I've encouraged others to 'discover' Vanessa for themselves. She is brilliant (and also works VERY hard at her craft.)

I, too, have met people who say they want to write but don't read so have no idea where their writing fits. All I can say is that such people don't really want to write. They think they want to be writers--and published writers at that.

Of course, there's nothing wrong in aiming for publication but it's never been my be all and end all. Writing is what I love. And reading. To be without anything to read is like being a junkie without his fix.

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catdownunder said...

Oh miaou! I really think that being able to write good short stories is a very disciplined art indeed. I am always puzzled by the notion that you should begin to write by first writing short stories - because they are 'easier'. Easier?

Linda Strachan said...

Donna, it is very difficult for any author to say anything negative about a successful author because of that kind of comment.
People always seem to think it is a case of jealousy or you are bad-mouthing them just because they are successful.

Writers are constantly reading and looking critically at their own and other writers' work, to make sure that what they write is going to be the best they possibly can. If someone writes a book that sells well and is popular with the general public that is no guarantee that it is excellent writing.

Leaving Harry Potter aside for the moment - you must admit that there are amazingly well written books which are not world-shatteringly successful and the most popular books are not necessarily the best written.

Look at Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code for instance. No one is going to say it was great writing but there is no doubt that it was successful and popular. But I would be concerned if an aspiring writer said it was the book they most admired. I think they would be meaning that the success was what they admired and wanted.
Lots of people want that and learning to write well is the first step, otherwise they would be as well buying a lottery ticket.

Cat, I agree, I am always amazed that we expect children at school to write short stories when it is often acknowledged to be one of the hardest forms of writing to master!

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Nicola Morgan said...

Donna - JKR is a writer I hugely admire for many reasons but she is not a YA author and doesn't claim to be! I have never criticised her! She is hugely widely read. I have some problems commenting while away and only with mobile phone so I need to check if one of my earlier comments didn't get through, but I had tried to emphasise that. You have missed my point - it was that a) because her situation is exceptional you can't use her as an example of anything normal and b) for an aspiring YA author only to be able cite a non-YA author as an example of great YA authors is revealing. In a bad way.

Will reply properly asap to other points but it's really while away.

Nicola Morgan said...

Er, meant to say it's really *hard to comment* while away.

People who write in any genre need to read and love the writing of that genre. Whether it's JKR or not is irrelevant but it must reflect the genre's intention and raisin d'ĂȘtre.

* said...

Articulate post. It is a challenge to me as a Children's Librarian, writer and mother to keep up on current authors and writings in my field, but it's a necessary exercise all the same.

As aspiring authors (namely me), writers cannot write in a bubble. Or, I suppose they can, but most likely to their detriment.

{I'm going to visit the short story post now you mentioned. Thanks for the link!}

Unknown said...

I love reading, but keeping up to date with current books is increasingly difficult a) Finances (the world round can understand that one)
and b) Libraries in South Africa are really really old. The government doesn't give them a lot of funding and they can't afford to buy the new books.

I find myself rereading the books in my shelves just to read something.

Catherine Hughes said...

Amanda - re-reading can itself be a joy.

I love to re-read old favourites and to find things in them that I missed first time out, or to recognise the significance of certain portions now that I know the ending...

Nicola Morgan said...

Am back very briefly before going away again early tomorrow. As I've said, i'll answer Samantha's question properly in a separate post but not for another week or so as I'm away for several days and then have some deadlines.

Donna, the original post had no criticism of any published author and was not intended to start such a discussion about their merits.

I'm grateful to Linda for pointing out the difficulty in criticising certain authors without seeming jealous or mean in some way. That difficulty gets in the way of legitimate measured opinions. But I'd really be much happier if we stuck to the topics raised. The message about short stories has beomce lost and I'd like to call the meeting back to the agenda, please! Thank you!

none said...

No doubt, Donna, which--amazingly--is why I used the term 'core readership'.

DOT said...

Interesting debate to which I shall add my tuppence worth.

To the original point, I agree completely that if one is to write one must read. If one is to write YA, one must read YA. It is the most basic form of research. How else are you to understand what your readership appreciates?

I am also in agreement with those who identify the short story as one of the harder forms to pull off successfully. Currently, I am writing them as an exercise to improve my own skills.

Finally, I am with Sally when she states, 'To be without anything to read is like being a junkie without his fix'.

For as long as I can remember I have had my nose in a book. In times of desperation, when no book was to hand, I have been known to resort to reading the back of the cereal box. (Whatever happened to riboflavin?)

Sorry to be so contentious and agree with everyone. Not like me at all.

none said...

My mantle of niceness seems to have slipped. Apologies.

Nicola, what was the context of Rowling's remark?

Administrator said...

Arrogant? I hope not - that would assume i think shifting genres and writing for young adults is easy, which i certainly don't.

Nicola Morgan said...

Samantha - no, I'm abs sure not you, but some people who I come across who don't think necessary to read in genre. Sorry, v difficult to comment properly and hold everyone's comments in my head while on mobile device. Please be assured that I know and respect you well enough to assume you wouldn't be in that category.Didn't intend to imply otherwise. Will answer properly when I do sep post, next week. It was a valid point you raised and I hope my answer will evetually convince you (but it might not!)

Administrator said...

I've not doubt it will, Nicola. Crabbit old bats tend to be rather persuasive:)

Rebecca Knight said...

I'm also excited to see your post coming up, Nicola :).

Thank you for the comments on reading contemporary short stories widely before trying to send a few out. I have to admit, I haven't done this as much as I should. I'm a huge fan of Ray Bradbury, but his stories are somewhat less than recent at this point... so yeah. Point well taken!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks for pointing your esteemed readers to Sally's blog post - its a r eally interesting exercise. A great thing as a writer to sit back and watch a piece of work out there, out of my control... and hearing reactions to it. fascinating.

Re the reading as a necessity thing - can I add something? I agree 100%. To write, you must read. But for me (she said in a small voice) it's not so to find where I fit in the modern canon (cor that sounds posh) but because reading feeds the writer in me.

I cant be the only writer who reads with a pen in hand... jotting down the fresh thoughts that start to flow in my head when I read the words of certain other writers. Its like something opens up inside...Thats how I started writing myself. Picked up a copy of Austerlitz by Sebald, and scribbled my own stuff over it so much I cant lend it to anyone!