Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story by Vanessa Gebbie

Short Circuit by Vanessa Gebbie

A lot of books about the art and craft of writing have very uninspiring covers. From bearded academics to meaningless out of focus shots. This cover makes a refreshing change. At first glance if it just a head with cogs grinding away. The more you look at it the more symbolism pops out of you. It helps that this is a nice sized book that really shows off the cover art.

I love short stories. A great one is a perfectly formed effortless read. They look so simple, so easy. Surely anybody could write a decent one with a minimum of effort. It turned out that writing short fiction that flows is a damn sight harder than it looks. This was the position from which I bought this book.

First things first. This book is not going to explicitly state a definitive way to do anything. You will not become a best selling author just from reading this book. What this book does give you are some extra tools. One of the key lessons that gets repeated is that reading is key. Targeted reading if possible. Each contributor to this book has put a selection of their favourite short stories at the end.  I have put together a list based on recommendations in this book for further reading. That was instant win for me.

For me the structure of this book worked really well. There are discreet sections by the various contributors. Each section starts with an informative and easy to follow description that succinctly demonstrates the title of the section. Some books would stop and be happy with that, but this one goes further. At the end of each section there are exercises that help build on the points made. Some are as simple as getting you to think of a situation and twisting it in a certain direction. They are simple and yet highly effective in getting the reader to think and imagine something they had not thought of before. The bits I wasn’t so sure about I could look at the recommended list of short stories by the author of that section and get a better idea of what they were talking about.

Although I read this story from cover to cover I think the most benefit can be gained from dipping in and out of it as needed. I found this to be an inspiring read and already have post-it notes adorning several pages.


Horror 101: The Way Forward edited by Joe Mynhardt

Horror 101

Horror 101

I love the cover art for this book. It couldn’t be much clearer that it is about learning as a horror writer. This isn’t just a book about the technical side of writing though. Some of the articles in this book pay attention to how you should conduct yourself. It basically boils down to not being a douche. This advice has very little to do with writing and everything to do with being a human being that anybody would want to be in a room with. This couldn’t be made more clear than by Theresa Derwin in her contribution about women in horror. I’ve exchanged emails with Theresa and she has sent me books to review in the past. She’s always come across as professional and I’ve never considered her gender before. I haven’t needed to. That is the point. I didn’t reply to her emails asking for naked pictures or by asking inappropriate questions, and I certainly didn’t try to belittle her because of her gender. Neither should you to her or anybody else! I’ll get off my soapbox now but please remember to treat everybody well. It is good manners and you never know who will be in what position in the future. As one of the authors in this book says ‘DO NOT BURN BRIDGES’.

On to the more technical aspects of this book. There are a lot of contributors in this book and they all have something different and useful to say. A lot of it is just as applicable to me as a reviewer and office worker as it is to a working author. There are some really good pieces of advice in here that are very specific about what makes good horror. Even as a horror reader they made me think about books I’ve read.

Most importantly for me I finished this book and already had a list of some books and authors that I need to check out. The article by Simon Marshall-Jones resonated so much that I stopped reading  this book and bought a Spectral Press book there and then.

This is a really interesting book that is useful to anybody with an interest in the Horror genre. With a price of £0.77 it is cheaper than a packet of crisps. With four hundred pages packed with advice it is not only a good read but a reference book to come back to when you are struggling.

Is There A Book In You? By Alison Baverstock

I bought this book because I really enjoyed a talk given by Alison Baverstock as a part of the Essex Book Festival. I was even lucky enough to get my copy signed. After reading this book I now can’t help wondering if the author was using her author persona (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that means) when I asked for the book to be singed.

This creative writing book is like none that I have ever seen. For a start during the introduction the author tells us that this book will not teach us how to write. This book is more philosophical than practical in the type of advice it gives. Large parts of this book are applicable to any creative endeavour as they concern how you can adapt your space and lifestyle to meet the demands of your chosen art.  This even goes as far as making sure you have a useful support network. This like a lot of the advice seems like common sense but it isn’t until you read and process these things that you find yourself evaluating yourself and thinking of ways to improve. There is a useful questionnaire near the back. I recommend answering the questions and getting your total score before and after reading this book. Mine changed by five percent which is quite scary.

There are a LOT of quotes in this book and I wouldn’t normally like that but in this case I found them useful and inspiring. Each point the author makes is backed up by quotes from different authors. Sometimes four or five authors are quoted for a single point. Each author mentioned gets a brief bio at the end of the book so it is easy to flick through and find out about a person who’s quote was particularly interesting. The bibliography is huge and there is a section of useful contacts in the back as well.

This book will not teach you how to write or become published but it will help you remove some of the barriers to achieving your artistic potential.

Essex Book Festival Writers Day

Here are my ramblings from the day. It is well worth checking out the Book Festival website.

I turned up and registered which was a good start. Then I stood at the edge of the coffee and chat area wondering what the heck I was doing there. I’m not a writer. I’m a a fraud. I should just sneak out more. At this point you can probably guess that I was rather anxious and totally out of my comfort zone.

During the initial briefing one of the organizers (Andrew) praised everyone here for giving themselves permission to be called a writer for the day. As cheesy and simple as that sounds it had an almost immediate impact on my self confidence. There must have been 80-100 people there which was in itself quite intimidating. The day was to be divided in to four workshops and the four groups (as denoted by a coloured sticker on the welcome pack) would cycle through them. I’m with them so far.
Social Media
The first workshop for me was the obligatory social media one. I love social media. I have crap social skills but if I try really hard I can manage not to get too many death threats when I chat online. I also don’t get as many of those fearful looks as people back away (or I just can’t see them). The most interesting part of this for me was to see how little some people interact online. I also hadn’t appreciated the SEO impact of linking a Google + account to a blog.
Getting Published
This section was a basic interview on the different routes to market and the different roles the author plays in the routes. In basic terms – self publishing seems like a lot of work with total creative control at every step but is offset by the sheer volume of extra work required. Apparently publishers don’t just sit there on their backsides doing bugger all.
I failed this section. Talking to complete strangers in an unstructured and uncontrolled environment was a step too far for me. Knowing the ARU campus well I escaped outside and sat eating my lunch by the river watching the ducks. Although I’m there most days I do forget how relaxing it can be out there. I then wandered back in and wrote a couple of hundred words before the next session.
How To Get An Agent
This section could have been titled How To Be Professional About Your Career. It sounds obvious but it is like most things deceptively simple. The cover letter in particular is more important than most of the room (including me) realized even though it is obvious when you think of it.
Is There A Book In You?
I really liked the idea of having an author persona to allow the less gregarious to function at events. This workshop was less how-to than the other ones and more about how to get your head in the right place to write as effectively as you can. I found it quite inspirational and I’ll be looking at my routines this week.
The Bookshop
There was a stand from an independent book seller there. I couldn’t resist buying a book from The Red Lion bookshop well worth supporting so I decided to buy a book by the last speaker Dr Baverstock. I then cheekily found her in one of the rooms and asked if she’d mind autographing it for me. She smiled and was really keen to sign it (it may have been part of her author persona from above). I’ll be reading that tonight.
The Wrap-up
The four panelists answered questions and made some insightful comments. The two main points were to read more and write more. Not just the things you know but to step outside your comfort zone and broaden your horizons.
Heading Home
I walked home with a spring in my step and some interesting ideas noted down. It was a really enjoyable day that is typical of the great events the organizers of the Essex Book Festival have continued to provide, well done to all of them.

NaNoWriMo Using The Laity Method

This October I read How to Keep Writing with a Full-Time Job by K.A. Laity and decided that instead of another failed attempt at NaNoWriMo I’d do something different. Kate Laity writes. Not just fiction. She is an academic that writes and teaches students how to improve their own writing. In short she knows what she’s talking about.

For me the key piece of advice she gives is to write. Not just today. Write every single day. It doesn’t matter if you only write four words. What matters is that you have written something. Anything. So that’s what I did. It is December now. My NanoWriMo word count is 30 words. That isn’t exactly correct. I decided to completely ignore all numbers other than the number of days I had written. I succeeded in writing every single day for the entire month. Most of it is pure drivel. Some of it has given me ideas that I can work on and I have half of a short story down and I know where it is going.

It doesn’t sound much does it? For me though it is pretty darn good. I’m really happy about it. More importantly though it has been about creating new habits. It sounds simple because it is. Simple does not mean easy though. The discipline and dedication required to write anything of note. That is one of the main reasons I am so impressed by anybody that can output a significant number of coherent and entertaining words.

So all you lovely people that have produced something interesting for people to read, I salute you. Keep up the great work. For myself I’ll keep noodling around and hopefully improve in both quality and quantity.

How to Keep Writing with a Full-Time Job by K.A. Laity

This book came on to my radar with almost perfect timing. I decided to give NaNoWriMo a proper go this year. I even had a couple of pages of outlining done. That’s when I realized that it couldn’t possibly work without massive cliches or sexual violence. Neither of which appeals to me. Oh bother. I’ll just go and cry in the corner.

I grabbed a copy of this book and settled down for a read. What I like about this book is the easy-going informal and relaxing style. I could feel myself calming down as I read. There is no cajoling or castigation just simple and easy to follow advice on how to improve your productivity as a writer. Not just as an author but any kind of writing. Students in particular will find this useful.

I made a few notes as I was reading and I plan to use them to help remind me what I should be doing. Some are self-explanatory and some may not make much sense unless you read the book. Here’s my list:

What is this?
where did it come from?
who did it belong to?
what did it mean to them?
What if? What if? What if? What if? What if?

Do not put away those childish things.
Shut up and write!
Narrative, narrative, narrative. Sell the freaking story and sod everything else in a first draft.
Finish it, send it out, start another. Ad infinitum.
Create or wither away.
This book will not turn me or anybody else in to a prolific writer. Only hard work and effort will do that. Hopefully though I now have a few more tools that I can practically use to achieve something.
My new revised goal is to write every day in November without worrying about what it is or whether it is any good. I’ve said it so now I have to do it.
This book although short and simple has enthused and inspired me. That is worth more than money.

NaNoWriMo – Why I’m giving it a go this year

It is all Chuck Wendig‘s fault…..

That may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly why I decided to do it now.

Before I go any further I should say that NaNoWriMo is a project to get people to blitz a single draft of a fictional work in the month of November. That works out at about 1667 words a day. At my current typing speed of 35 wpm that means 48mins of pure typing a day. Of course it is not that easy.

When I was seven years old one of my teachers asked me to write a one page story. It turned out to be a twenty three page epic (I was seven). That was the last person in my education that encouraged me to write anything from my imagination. As soon as I started senior school (year seven or age 11 if you prefer) English lessons were designed purely to get you through a GCSE. Spelling? Grammar? Creative writing? All went down the tube. Trying to replicate a Wilfred Owens poem who you have no idea how crap life is cannot possibly count.

So that was it for me and formal English teaching. It had been turned into a soulless comprehension exercise. Say the expected things and pass. It should be no surprise to learn that very few if any of my peers went on to study English or English Lit beyond the age of sixteen.

I was about the age of fifteen when I started carrying a notebook with me everywhere and writing poetry. Some of it was actually pretty good. After a particularly annoying break-up at age twenty I burned all of my notebooks as a way of purging all the negative emotions I’d expressed in the previous angst filled years. Bloody idiot. It didn’t work, and now I wish I still had them.

Since that point and probably before I have wanted to write a work of fiction. Me and half the bloody world. Like nearly everybody else though I got on with my life and convinced myself that I was too busy and couldn’t possibly find time to do it. The age old lie.

This year I have read a few books that contain advice on writing. This is where Mr Wendig comes in. One line in particular on his blog or one of his books stated something along the lines of  “A writer finishes that which they started”. Sounds simple right? It is. Easy? Not a chance. So I am going to dedicate this month to writing one story of at least 50,000 words badly. Badly? I know you just asked that in your head. Another Wendigism (I made that up) is that the first draft should really be called draft zero as it will be utterly crap. This inspired me and got me thinking. I can do that badly. I guess only time will tell me if after several re-writes it will ever be anywhere near the level where an editor or publisher will not add me to the spam filter on submission. At least then I’ll know, and if nothing else it will give me even more appreciation for those clever buggers that write such awesome books.

So there it is. My cards are on the table. I will now feel a total tit if I don’t at least manage the word count. Oh and I have at least a basic plot outline and a few characters sketched out already. That alone is a new experience for me.


250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig

I am a big fan of Mr Wendig. It started with Irregular Creatures which is equal parts bizarre and brilliant. Then I bought Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey which is a hilarious and informative collection of his blog posts about writing. I also have Double Dead on pre-order, and the first of Mr Wendig’s two novels with Angry Robot Books in my ebook subscription package next year. Hmmm, that seems like almost stalker levels of fandom.

There is a one star review of this book on Amazon US that moans about the language and the lack of any useful writing advice. Lesson one, read the blurb before buying a book. If you don’t like swearing DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK! There is plenty advice on writing in this book and I can only think that the language obscured it for that particular reader. I personally feel that the writing of Mr Wendig will be very popular in the UK because we love a good hobo handjob over here. Or is it a self-deprecating humour?

I found the structure of this book combined with the short sections not only makes this book easy to read, but also better as reference material. Most of the content can be considered quite basic and common sense.  My old martial arts instructor used to hammer into us every week that the basics are everything, and should be practiced every day. That is a piece of advice they both heavily subscribe to so there is probably something to it.

This book will be of most value to people interested in writing either a book or a screenplay, but is equally transferable to blog posts, emails, technical writing and academic papers.

You’re probably thinking that this post is not the best advert for a book on writing. My posts are a damn sight less crap now than they were a couple of months ago. Maybe in a year my reviews will be somewhere near the quality of my favourite review sites. I will keep plugging away and try to get better. Oh, and I promise to read every single post out loud.