Writing Great Short Stories (by Margaret Lucke)

I'd never heard of Margaret Lucke. But a little over a year ago, in a fit of enthusiasm, I decided to buy a few books about writing short stories. I'm not sure what I wanted, exactly: some inspiration, some ideas, probably some magic formula that would enable me to write winning fiction.

I bought about three books, all at good prices from play.com, all with good reviews at Amazon.co.uk. I started one of the others first, but found it rather heavy going. It tried to persuade me to write in all kinds of genres which I have no interest in at all, and didn't actually give me the kind of help I wanted.

So I picked up 'Writing Great Short Stories', a title which is prefixed by 'Schaum's Quick Guide to'. It doesn't look an appealing cover, and I don't really like 'quick guide' books. Had it not been for the low price and encouraging reviews, it's not a book I would have glanced at more than once.

A reminder, yet again, NOT to judge a book by its cover. For this little 'quick guide' turned out to be an absolute gem. In only about 150 pages it manages to cover the essentials of plot, structure, characterisation, dialogue, and even finding one's own voice. It doesn't assume any experience, but it also doesn't assume total ignorance of short story writing. Nor does it focus on the technical details, although there's a brief question-and-answer appendix in the back dealing with these details.

I have dipped into this book many times over the past year. I re-read some chapters several times, and even did some of the many exercises provided at the end of each chapter. Not all of them - not even most of them. But sufficient to give me some ideas and inspiration, even if I haven't yet put most of them into practise.

I particularly liked the way that the exercises did not try and push me to experiment with different short story genres. They were general enough that I could try my hand at my own preferred styles, and do what I wanted with them. And I liked the way the book was written, too, in a light and friendly style. It was almost as if the author was sitting there, chatting through the basic principles of writing short stories.

I don't suppose there was anything I hadn't come across before at some point, probably online. But I've found this book invaluable, because it has so much of value inside it. I hate desecrating books, but it's a reference guide, and so - on the third or fourth read, I've marked certain passages or sentences in pencil, because I found them even more helpful than the rest.

Perhaps it wouldn't suit every potential writer, but for me it was undoubtedly the best book on writing I have ever read.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in fiction - even if you're planning to write a novel, much of the contents of this would probably still be appropriate.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 31st December 2008

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