52 books in 52 weeks: Writing Your First Novel – a 60-minute masterclass

I set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 8.

Writing Your First Novel – a 60-minute masterclass by Shelley Weiner bills itself as the first book in the series, but I’m sure I’ve read and reviewed earlier ones, including one I thought was, in fact, the first in the series. But perhaps that was just my own incorrect assumption.

The book took me around 55 minutes to read from start to finish and, I believe, that this is the correct way to read it, doing the exercises at the end of most chapters as you go along.

These exercises are good in that they start with character, work through dialogue, setting, plot, viewpoint, tense and research, and culminate with the bones of a full novel that the reader can work on. The exercises are practical and they aren’t there for exercise sake, which I love.

Like her other book I read, she uses a lot of literary authors as examples, and I couldn’t help but think I should be so good each time she did. But there’s no saying that someone else’s book won’t be the next great literary novel, so perhaps it’s a nice ambition to strive for. It just doesn’t work for me.

The contents, with exercises, are as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creating Believable Characters
    1. Exercise 1
  3. Making Your Characters Talk
    1. Exercise 2
  4. The Importance of Setting
    1. Exercise 3
    2. Exercise 4
  5. Finding the Plot: Character, Place, Causality and Time
    1. Exercise 5
  6. Who Tells the Story and How?
    1. Exercise 6
  7. Now Settle Down and Make it Happen
  8. Sustaining Your Momentum

There is the usual “the king died and then the queen died” story, but with an added twist that I haven’t seen in a lot of writers’ guides, and then there are notes and guidance on pretty much everything else you might need to know before settling down to write a novel. It’s another useful book to get you started, but I wish there were more modern examples used than the likes of Hardy and Hemmingway.

Writing your First Novel – a 60-minute masterclass by Shelley Weiner  is only available on Kindle for £2.48 (or $3.04) and is another in a series from the Guardian.

52 books in 52 weeks: Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass

03-writing-short-storiesI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 3.

Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass by Shelley Weiner took me just under 60 minutes to read. But I was lucky to get through it as the literary comparisons and the lack of practical exercises that build on each other almost stopped me in my tracks.

I’m glad I got over myself, and my own personal prejudices, though, as once you get going, it does actually get better.

It was the references to Chekhov, Poe, Hemingway and Dostoyevsky that blocked me as they came across as quite pretentious in a short 60-minute read. But get over that and you do come to the basics of short story writing – and if literary fiction is your thing, then go for it. It’s just not mine.

The exercises then didn’t really build on each other. They consist of:

  • Studying a selected short story by Checkhov
  • Using “What if”
  • Creating a character from a picture
  • Giving your character a voice
  • Creating a setting from a picture
  • Placing your character into your setting

And that’s it. Apart from the last one, they are simply exercises for exercise-sake. I would have also liked to have seen the exercises listed in the contents, as I may then have chosen a different book to buy instead of this one at this stage.

Following chapters go on to give the same old advice about narrative, viewpoint, presentation, etc. But the author has used the age-old examples of the king dying and then the queen dying (of grief), and Hemingway’s baby shoes for sale.

I would much prefer to see exercises in a writing guide that build on each other to produce a finished, publishable piece of work, or even several. And I also think the author could have come up with some of her own examples to demonstrate those age-old ones cited above. To simply recycle what has already been out there for years and years seems a little … lazy, in my opinion.

Saying that, beginners will find this book quite refreshing, with lots of solid, standard, good advice. Experienced writers may find it a little … prosaic. But get past the odd little niggles and it’s a good introduction to writing the short story.

Only available on Kindle for £2.99 (or $4.07), Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass is one of a series from The Guardian.