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 eight.

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 Crime Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass

06-historical-fictionI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book six.

Writing Historical Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass by Katharine McMahon took me just over an hour to read from start to finish. I read it on the PaperWhite, and that struggled at first to calculate the total time the book would take to read, starting at 6 minutes, then 12 minutes, then finally an hour and 12 minutes. But it probably took me just about an hour.

This is another no-nonsense, straightforward book that collates everything you need to know about starting to write historical fiction. It doesn’t tell you how to write the book from start to finish, but it shows you how to get started and then ways to develop your story.

There are exercises in this book, which I loved as not one was about closing your eyes and imagining a waterfall or anything like that. Granted, the first few exercises get you to study your favourite historical novels and try to identify what it is you like about them. But then you start to write down your own ideas.

My favourite exercise was the one that provides two examples from history that you can write-along with. The text links you to two historical documents and it’s up to you which one you go for, starting with why you think you chose that one.

Other aspects I liked include:

  • The author defining the historical novel as “anything that doesn’t happen now or in the future”, particularly as my own “historical” novels are set in living memory – even my own.
  • Her advice not to go down the heavily researched path, coming up with pages and pages of copious notes, as the chances are you won’t use much of it. Better, she says, to conduct research on a need-to-know basis – AND she advises on how to research before starting and when to stop and just write.
  • Why she doesn’t create a Q&A pen-picture of her characters before she starts, preferring instead to let the characters grow by themselves and instill within her a “feeling”, or several.

This is another nice little book that I’ll be holding on to and using in my own work. In fact, I liked it so much, I bought one of the author’s novels, Season of Light, set against the French revolution.

Only available on Kindle for £3.48 (or $4.23), Writing Historical Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass is Book 7 in a series from The Guardian.

52 books in 52 weeks: How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass

04-fictionI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 4.

How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass is similar to the 60-minute masterclass books in that it takes around 60 minutes to read it from cover to cover. There, however, is where any similarities end.

The book comprises a number of contributions from different “experts”, interspersed with writing exercises lifted from The Writing Book: a practical guide by Kate Grenville. And if you already have this particular writers’ guide, I’d suggest sticking with that (I may review it in the future, if I decide to buy a copy).

The introduction by Geoff Dwyer spends most of the time telling you to forget whatever you read in the introduction … Then the “expert” contributors include the likes of Jill Dawson, Andrew Miller, Rachel Cusk and various others that aren’t familiar to me. Two who are, however, in my opinion, provided the two best chapters, both in “Plot”: Kate Mosse and Mark Billingham. Apart from these two sections, the rest of the book was quite verbose. I often found myself drifting off thinking of something else, glazing over or quite simply skipping great tracts to get the the next point.

Personally, I am often happy to see writing exercises in a book, and this one has borrowed plenty. But once again they’re exercises for exercise sake. I mean, what is the point, really, in writing an entire paragraph omitting the letter “e”? Or describing myself in first person, second person or third person? Exercises like this may exercise the writing muscle and there are plenty of people out there who are happy to do exercises that don’t lead to anything. But I prefer something more practical.

Because there is a different person providing the material for each chapter, and sometimes two people per chapter in some cases, this book felt a little disjointed and a bit waffley. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, there are a lot of unnecessarily long and wordy sentences and paragraphs that simply encourage skipping.

Buy this book only if reading writers’ guides is a hobby. If you want to know how to write fiction, choose another book.

Only available on Kindle for £1.99 (or $2.49), How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass is one of 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.

52 books in 52 weeks: Writing Crime Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass

02-crime-writingI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book two.

Writing Crime Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass by William Ryan & M R Hall took me more than 60 minutes to read. But as I read this one in instalments, I can’t provide an accurate figure.

This book is a no-nonsense, straightforward book that collates everything you need to know about writing crime fiction without all the guff in between. It’s clear and concise and it doesn’t use the same-old same-old stories as examples, although old favourites like Elmore Leonard and Agatha Christie are used.

My only gripe with this book is that there are no exercises – or no easily identified exercises. I do like a writer’s guide that gives step-by-step guidance in a specific order that can be manipulated to suit a writer’s preferred methods. However, each chapter does suggest what to do next. So if you can highlight it as you go through, perhaps the reader could build his/her own writing workshop.

It’s another nice little book that’s useful to keep on the virtual bookshelf.

Only available on Kindle for £1.99 (or $2.53), Writing Crime Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass is Book 1 in a series from The Guardian, and was originally billed as an introduction to writing crime fiction.

52 books in 52 weeks: Feature Writing – a 60 minute masterclass

feature-writingI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year … and then right in week one was struck down by lurgy. So the first in the series is a little late, but it’s a short enough book.

Feature Writing – a 60 minute masterclass by Rob Orchard does exactly what it says on the cover. It took me just about 60 minutes to read it in one sitting. and the exercises – all five of them – are practical and realistic.

There are no arty-farty write-about-how-the-surface-of-a-stone-feels pointless (in my opinion) exercises that don’t actually help you become a working writer. There is no puff about every step of the author’s own personal journey that don’t actually teach anything really. In fact the writer’s credentials don’t even appear until the end matter.

These exercises start with finding and researching new markets in this digital and global age, through how to come up with features ideas and angles, how to contact ten target publications, pitching your best three ideas to your best three markets, and finishing with tips and advice on obtaining and conducting interviews.

In between the exercises, which are what I read these books for, are chapters filled with who to pitch to, what to pitch,  how a features editor works, how to negotiate commissions, and questions and answers to and from working features writers.

All in all, this is a nice little book that gives you just enough information to actually crack on and DO, rather than sit and dream and read yet another book on the art of writing. The exercises are simple enough to build into a regular working week and the book is short enough to read again and refresh the creative well whenever required.

Only available on Kindle for £2.99 (or $3.67), Feature Writing – a 60 minute masterclass is Book 13 in a series from The Guardian.