By L.E. Daniels and C. Sawyer
I bought this book on a whim: it’s an Australian publication and I live in the U.K. so not entirely sensible to get it posted (there’s no electronic copy). I’m glad I did, although it’s been excruciating to read. Not because it’s badly written – it’s excellently written. Not because it’s wrong – no, because it’s oh, so very, very right.
I’ve been writing for nearly a year now. I’m half way through a Masters in Creative Writing and it’s going pretty well. I’m focussing on poetry and I’ve learnt a lot. One module was creative prose writing and was SO STRESSFUL (all those words; all that plot; all that editing) but I got a Distinction (yay me) which gave me the confidence to continue on my own with short form fiction.
Over the summer I’ve written a few short stories and in absence of anything else to do (pandemic anyone?) I sent them to various competitions. It was a bit like throwing children into a swimming pool to see who could swim. Dyspraxic, water-phobic children, possibly. I don’t have any expectations of them now. (I was a bit more bullish when they left).
Unsurprisingly, the title Winning short story competitions grabbed me. I got it yesterday, finally, international post being a bit stretched at the moment, and read most of it today.
It’s told me everything I thought I had already learned in a way that made it totally apparent I hadn’t learnt it yet.
Despite a good degree in English Literature I don’t really understand formal grammar construction (a verb is a doing word? Yep, that’ll do. Blame 1980’s comprehensive education, not me) so the examples are perfect for me. Very little point telling me not to write in the passive, far better to show me how to correct it.
There are clear checklists of what good short stories need and what a judge will look for. Which makes it sound prescriptive. It isn’t, it’s a lot more thoughtful than that. Helpful too.
I’ve been reading about writing and listening to published authors avidly all year, picking up nuggets of gold as I go. I’ve read enough stories over 48 years to recognise the qualities they describe and agree with them. This book condensed everything and put it in one place.
I spent today revisiting a story I consider my best to date. I’ve reduced it by over 1000 words based on the advice in this book. My story is a lot stronger as a result. It was like I had a really experienced editor at my shoulder, making me re-evaluate and re-consider. The last time I felt like this was when I read Dreyer’s English, though that has a different focus.
Massive respect to Daniels and Sawyer for making it so clear: they have masses of experience they bring to this and it shows.
They also say (I paraphrase) ‘write lots to improve’. I know I am at the start of a really long road, learning and improving all the time. It’s made me want to re-double my efforts.
I might have to go rock gently in a corner for a bit whilst my shattered pride recovers first, mind you.*
* Or maybe I should just move to Australia and join a writer’s group?