How to Avoid 7 Deadly Sins of Short #Story #Writing

This post is a reblog from a Bridget Whelan Post. Click here for the original post

This post grew out of an article I originally wrote for the Hysterectomy Association when I was writer in residence of their annual writing comeptition earlier this year.

seven deadly sins of writing a short story

I recently came across the WikiHow entry on how to write a short story. The actual article contains good advice, but I arched an eyebrow (see above) when I read the introduction.

While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story.”  wiki

No, they can’t – unless the writer means that almost anybody can produce 1000+ words of grammatically correct sentences that somehow link up together, but that’s no more a short story than a roll of material pinned into a tube is a dress.

I resent the idea that short stories are an easy option. The very size means there’s nowhere to hide flabby ideas and weak sentences. A clunky phrase stands out as brashly as if it had been highlighted in neon yellow. Usually a short story has a very restricted range of characters and the action takes place over a relatively short period of time – days rather than years – and there’s no room for time slips or flash backs. Usually. As soon as you try to formulate any rule of writing you can think of brilliant exceptions, but I read a lot of short stories by emerging writers and here are some of the most common problems I come across.

1) Too much information

I don’t need to know that the head gardener is called Barry and is a veteran of the Falklands War if all he does is knock on a door. It may sound like being a member of a spy ring, but everything’s on a need to know basis. If Barry only has a walk on part readers don’t need to be introduced.

2) Too many names

Not every character has to be named. They can be refered to as their occupation: the vicar, the postman. Or by their relationship to others: grandad, his wife, her teacher….

3) Too much back story

Sir Angus Wilson who helped set up the first UK Masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the early 1970s thought that short stories and plays were similar.

“You take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards.”  ~ Sir Angus Wilson

I think Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, was saying much the same thing when she described short stories as ‘a world seen in a quick glancing light. ’

4) Too much description

If you think of a story as a journey, description forces the reader to stop. It’s as if the author is saying hold on a moment, I know you want to find out what happens next, but I’ve created a whole new world for your enjoyment: stop and look at the sun reflecting on the water, the child’s soft curls and the cold blue of the spring sky… Too much description and the reader might not bother to wait for the journey to start again. Too little and the reader might not care where the journey is heading.

5) Too timid

Safe stories about safe subjects don’t linger long in the memory. Once you’ve got an idea ask what if? and keep on pushing the boundaries…Avoid timid titles too. Think of it as the first line of the story – which is most likley to make you want to find out more: The Party or Jiving with St Joseph?

6) Too Over the Top

too over the top,A.K.Andrew,

You can’t encapsulate the complexity of a novel-length idea in a few thousand words without losing something vital. Accept that you have a small canvas.

And finally…

7) Starting in the wrong place
Do you really need to set the scene? And do you need to do it in the opening paragraphs? Introductions are needed in academic essays – not short stories. The great American writer Kurt Vonnegut said start as near to the end as possible. Experiment – see how far you can push that idea.

And here’s the rest of Kurt’s rules for what you should put into a short story.

photo credit: FLASHFLOOD® via photopin cc

photo credit: Urban Woodswalker via photopin cc

A.k. Andrew,,A Writer's Notebook,Bridget Whelan

Bridget Whelan is a London Irish novelist and Creative Writing teacher. She has taught at the prestigious Goldsmiths Collegein London, UK as well as other locations in both London and Brighton. Her first novel is A Good Confession, and this year she released a fantastic book called Back to Creative Writing School which is now OUT IN PAPERBACK! as well as an ebook. Click the link below.You can reach Bridget at  and on twitter @agoodconfession

Can you think of any more sins?  What other problems do you have writing short work?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Go Tell It On The Mountain – from 101BOOKS.NET

 Robert Bruce whose site 101BOOKS.NET, is consistently voted the Best Book Blog. It is definitely my favorite book blog. He has kindly allowed me to reblog one of his posts about Go Tell It on The Mountain, but be sure to check out more of his work at

Robert is reading 100 of Time Magazine‘s greatest English-speaking novels since 1923 (plus Ulysses) and blogs daily. I have chosen Go Tell It On the Mountain, as it is a favorite novels of two of my character in my latest novel Under The Bed.

Book #19: Go Tell It On The Mountain

by Robert on June 15, 2011

Sometimes, when I read a book, I’m more taken by the writing than the story.

It’s not that the story is bad–it’s usually powerful, in fact–after all, an author who can captivate a reader with his writing usually has enough wherewithal to create a unique plot.

But, sometimes, when I close the book, when I read that last word, I stop and reflect more about the author as a writer than as a storyteller. And that was definitely the case with Go Tell It On The Mountain.

From a writing standpoint, James Baldwin is one of the best authors I’ve read. I gave you an excerpt of his writing in yesterday’s post, and that’s just a small sample. Go Tell It On The Mountain is beautifully told.

Here’s another passage that describes 14-year-old John’s spiritual tension as he struggles with believing in God and his hatred toward his father. It’s a theme that carries throughout the book.


“He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his death-bed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.”

But what of the story?

Set in 1930s Harlem, Go Tell It On The Mountain centers on this 14-year-old boy, John, who is conflicted between a faith he doesn’t believe inbut still feels drawn to. His father, Gabriel–who is also a deacon and former minister at their church, “Temple of the Fire Baptized”–abuses John and his mother, Elizabeth. He’s a mean, hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, who claims to be “God’s annointed.”

While I would say John is the central character, Baldwin also tells the story of three other characters: Gabriel, Aunt Florence, and John’s mother, Elizabeth. The book is broken up into sections that focus on on each character, shifting the story between their past and their present.

Other than the writing, two other things stand out to me about this novel.

First, the dialogue. I’m no expert on African-American dialect in 1930s Harlem, but Baldwin seems to capture it well. Consider this exchange between Aunt Florence and her brother, Gabriel. Aunt Florence, my favorite character in the novel, tells it like it is. In this situation, she’s confronting her brother about his past misdeeds.

“Look like,” she said, “you think the Lord’s a man like you; you think you can fool Him like you fool men, and you think He forgets, like men. But God don’t forget nothing, Gabriel–if your name’s down there in the Book, like you say, it’s got all what you done right down there with it. And you going to answer for it, too.”

Out of context, you might not appreciate that dialogue. But it’s a strong characteristic of this book. It’s another novel where I can almost hear these characters speak as I read. Baldwin really nailed the dialogue.

Second, Baldwin draws heavily from biblical stories throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain. It’s easy to see how he was once a teenage pastor.

I noticed allegories and illusions to biblical stories in many places. For instance, Gabriel is an Abraham-like figure–his first wife was barren, and unwilling to wait on God to provide, Gabriel sought out the company of a prostitute and fathered an illegitimate child with her.

The main character, John, and his brother, Roy, are similar to Jacob and Esau in Scripture. Esau (read: Roy), the first-born, the legitimate child, who is a hellian yet remains the apple of his father’s eye.

And John, the good son, the one that, though he’s illegitimate (unlike Jacob in the Bible) is more capable of making Gabriel proud. But Gabriel mirrors the blindness of Isaac in Scripture by overlooking the flaws of his elder son.,James Baldwin

James Baldwin

James Baldwin (Photo: MDCArchives)

James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” I’m not sure who Baldwin was talking about there, as I haven’t been able to source the quote, but it perfectly describes his characterization of Gabriel in Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Your dislike for Gabriel–his arrogance, his brutality, his hypocrisy–will carry you through this novel. Though the story somewhat revolves around John, it’s Gabriel who carries this story. You’ll feel his presence on the characters throughout the book.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, spiritual or not, this is a strong book. You’ll read a moving story about a young boy’s growth into maturity, despite the presence of an overbearing and abusive father.

More than all of that, though, you’ll hopefully appreciate James Baldwin’s talent as a writer. For me, that alone makes this book worth the read.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”

The Meaning: The story dives into the gray areas of faith. Men who profess absolute truth but live in absolute hypocrisy. In that murkiness, though, Baldwin shows redemption is still possible.

Highlights: James Baldwin has a cadence, a rythym with his writing that is simply beautiful. Amazing that Go Tell It On The Mountain was Baldwin’s first novel. Also, I think Baldwin does a excellent job of leaving the discussion open about Christianity and the church. Considering his upbringing, I think it could have been easy for him to come down hard one way or the other.

Lowlights: A lot of the story occurs in the past, explaining the history of some of the characters. I would’ve enjoyed seeing a little more in the present, and a little more focus on the main character, John.

Memorable Line: “John and his father stared at each other, struck dumb and still and with something come to life between them–while the Holy Ghost spoke. Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes while the Spirit spoke.”

Final Thoughts: James Baldwin could make an infomercial poetic. The guy could flat write, and that’s what made Go Tell It On The Mountain memorable for me. I would say that anyone who is a writer or claims to be a writer should read this book. It’s beautifully told.

Robert’s Menu: Home   About Me  The List  My Rankings   Frequently Asked Questions  Friends of 101 Books  Your Blogs  Archives

  I hope you will find Robert  @robertbruce76  or at his  website:  There’s lots of great stuff there, not just a summary of each novel like this post. Oh, and while you’re there, tell him A.K. sent you!

What is your favorite James Baldwin book, or favorite book set in New York City?

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3 Simple #Writing Tools for #Editing

Editing is the basis of all writing, because… yes you guessed it –

All Writing is Rewriting

So anything to make the editing process a little smoother right?

Here are 3 of my favorite sweet and simple writing tools, which I use all the time.

I hope you enjoy them.

A: Grammarly

Rule #1 during arguments

Rule #1 during arguments (Photo credit: Global X)

Grammarly, as the name suggests is a instant Grammar checker and can

  • Instantly find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes
  • Context-optimized vocabulary suggestions -Improve word choice with context-optimized vocabulary suggestions
  • Plagiarism detector -Avoid plagiarism by checking your texts against over 8 billion web pages

There is a monthly fee for the grammarly program to get the full works, but there is also Grammarly Lite which is free-Yeah!!

check it out at


B: Simple Note

Simplenote is an app which is perfect for taking notes, writing on the fly. And because it syncs with all your devices, then you can reach your notes anywhere. You can organizing your notes with tags, but there is nothing fancy about it. In fact no formatting allowed! However, it’s also a perfect adjunct to Scrivener until Scrivener comes up with an iPad app (hopefully in late 2014) Sections of your larger text on Scrivener can be sent to Simplenote, edited and seamlessly compiled back into your larger doc. complete with edits.

C: Pro-Writing Aid


C (Photo credit: april-mo)

  • Online grammar and spelling checker;
  • Improve readability;
  • Find overused words;
  • Improve dull paragraph structure;
  • Find repeated words and phrases;
  • Check for consistency of spelling, hyphenation, and capitalization;
  • Eliminate clichés and redundancies;
  • Create a word cloud of your text;
  • Eliminate vague, abstract, and complex words from your writing;
  • Analysis of sentiment, alliteration, and writing time-line.


The one I’ve found to be incredibly useful is checking overused words. Whoa! Do I really repeat myself that much? The report tells you how many times you’ve used a word, makes a recommendation as to how many recurrences to take out. It highlights the text, and makes it real easy to track the edits you make. For premium customers for either Windows or Mac there is WordPress integration. For Windows (Grrr, not for Mac) there is an integration of Word.


Do you use these tools, or have equivalent ones you feel work better? What are your 3 favorite writing tools? 

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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6 Resources for Writing Inspiration

 Waiting for Inspiration?

Do you ever feel you lack inspiration? Or are you someone who starts the New Year with amazing goals and manages to keep the creative juices flowing all year round? Most of us belong to the first category. Writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, a poem  a blog, or even a journal entry, requires a certain amount of inspiration to even get us started. And there we immediately hit the nail on the head: Get started!!! 

Inspiration eludes me today...

The First Shitty Draft

If every journey begins with a first step, so every piece of writing begins with one word. One word becomes a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph – you get the picture. The first shitty draft is important for all writers. Get the bare bones of the blog, article, essay or story down. It’s particularly important for novelists who are working on a long haul proposition. But, whatever you’re writing, it’s important to get that first shitty draft written, otherwise you’ll get bogged down in a bunch of second guessing, plot angst and a passel of procrastination.

 6 Resources For Inspiration

Okay, so you’re finally in front of the computer after your third cup of coffee, and the dog has been walked till it’s poor little legs have all but fallen off. And still your mind is a blank.

First step – don’t worry!!!  Inspiration is all around you, you just need to keep an open mind and be proactive. Here are 6 resources to use, when you’re searching for inspiration.

1. Newspapers

Newspapers B&W (3)

Newspapers B&W (3) (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

Yes they’re all full of bad news, and you might wonder how an article on yet another economic downturn be inspiring. Keep an open mind for a moment.  An economic downturn means unemployment, which means peoples lives change , and they struggle to find work, which can lead to domestic problems, and an argument that might mean the end of a marriage that was failing anyway, or one partner says to hell and has an affair… you see where I’m going with this. The heart of any fiction is conflict. That one article has provided a whole barrel of conflict.

I find it’s the small stories that peak my interest in newspapers. “91 year grandmother dies while boarding a bus.” Horrible headline, but makes me wonder what happened to the women in her life span, and how did she manage to live long enough and remain fit enough to catch a bus at 91 years old.

My favorite headline of all time was in a local borough paper in London, the Hackney Gazette. The headline was “Lucky Victim Stabbed 7 Times”.  I mean really – you couldn’t make that stuff up.

But if you think this is all a load of baloney, then think ‘In Cold Blood’  by Truman Capote. Not only a bestseller but a successful film. Real events give the inspiration for an amazing amount of imagination – or serious discussion.

 2. Photographs

Self Portrait circa 1957, with motor bike - Re...

circa 1957, with motor bike – Restored photograph (Photo credit: Cross Du



My personal favorite are old photographs, and the stories behind the people in them. With Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram and endless other internet resources, the availability of still images to ponder over and speculate about and travel to a different physical location in your minds eye, is endless.



3. Books

Reader of novels

Reader of novels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we learned to become writers, the chances are we were all readers. And why not learn from the best. I  covered this issue in more detail in the post Authors An Infinite Resource, but when I’m struggling over how to write a particular scene or indeed what to write, I always find inspiration in reading a good book. It doesn’t have to be anything to do with what I’m writing, but a good writer is always inspiring.

If you’re a blogger then read another blogger’s work that you admire.





4. Family Affairs

Family portrait: Key West, Florida

Family portrait: Key West, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florid

So you think your life isn’t interesting enough to write about? Don’t be so sure. You know what happened so there’s no suspense for you, but your readers may be more interested in things you consider mundane than you think. It can be hard for us to write about personal experiences that have been traumatic, but that’s an individual choice. The issue you had to deal with might be  something other readers can relate to. The beauty of using your own experiences for inspiration, means you can slack off for the most part on the research. But the most important part of using your own life as a resource, is you have the power to change your own past. Fictionalize it – and I’m not simply talking about changing names, change what happened.




6. Music

Music lesson: teacher (right, inscription: ???...

Music lesson: teacher (right, inscription: ? and his student (left, ?). Between them, a boy  narrates a text. Attic red-figure hydria, ca. 510 BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikiped


As we all know, music plays to one of our strongest of the senses -pun intended. You can hear the first few bars of a song and be immediately transported to a different period in your life, or have an emotion grab you by surprise. I like to feature music in my novels, as many other authors do. Murakami is one who comes to mind, featuring jazz quite prominently in many of his books (He owned a jazz club in Japan, which he gave up to become a writer.)

Music does not have to be an actual feature in your work, but listening to music, and different kinds of music, will affect what you write as you are writing.

 How to Maintain Your Inspiration

This is the easy part – write. Then write some more. It’s really as simple as it sounds. If you stop, your creative juices will dry up, and trying to get inspired will be that much harder. I’m a  big believer in little and often when it comes to writing. That will mean  different things for different people. Some writers have a very rigid everyday writing regime. I don’t always write every day, but I’m often sorry when I haven’t. If you like routines, then find one for your writing, even if it’s only ten minutes a day. Even for the most time-challenged person, ten minutes a day is an achievable goal. But if you’re like me and prefer to be more freeform, go with that, but be sure not to lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

What do you do when you are lacking inspiration? Do you have tricks you play with yourself to keep yourself inspired? 

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Is the Beginning of a Novel more important than the Ending?

Sonoma by A.K.Andrew

Beginnings and Endings by A.K.Andrew

The beginning of a novel is crucial. Without  a good beginning, you won’t have a reader. But if the ending is unsatisfactory, it’s unlikely your reader will recommend your novel or read any more of your work. So which is more important?

What links the two is the beginning and end of a circle. Yes – I know there is no beginning and end to a circle , and that of course is the whole point. Hold that thought OK?

A Journey

On a personal level I’ve recently been experiencing both endings and beginnings: I’ve left the UK, my country of birth, to return to Northern California, my adopted home where I spent more than 20 years of my adult life. It’s been a long journey, hence my absence from all things social media. Apologies for the gap in my blog, but it really has been a long 6,000 mile trip. I’d undertaken the same process, in reverse, ten years ago, so I thought I knew what to expect. And in some ways, similar to the way in which we develop the plot of a novel, I did. But like all good stories, there were unexpected, but necessary twists and turns. And like writing a novel, it took longer than I’d like.

We have our furniture unpacked, but not arranged. Most of my paintings seem to have made it in one piece, though are sitting facing a wall waiting for me to hang them. Again, like writing, it’s been a lesson in patience. Rush it and you end up with a really shitty first draft.

This blog is where life and writing collide. Endings and beginnings are significant stages in both. I was sad to say goodbye to my friends and family in the UK, but thrilled to be back in the USA  and see old friends in California. New beginnings are always exciting – the promise of new experiences, new people to meet, new characters to write and plot arcs to develop.


Aside from friends and family, I will miss living so close to the sea, watching the quirky English weather.

Brighton Pier by A.K.Andrew

Brighton Pier by A.K.Andrew

West Pier Brighton, Hand Tinted Photograph by A.K.Andrew

West Pier Brighton, Hand Tinted Photograph by A.K.Andrew

And  of course I shall miss the English countryside. From twee to wild, almost always green.

England, green England by A.K.Andrew

England, green England, by A.K.Andrew
Derbyshire Peak District by A.K.Andrew

Derbyshire Peak District by A.K.Andrew


But  sights I welcome back with open arms:

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge by A.K.Andrew


Armstrong Redwoods.Sonoma CA

Armstrong Redwoods by A.K.Andrew

Jack London State Park by A.K.Andrew

Jack London State Park by A.K.Andrew

Northern California is an area of incredible natural beauty: the Pacific ocean at the Golden Gate spanned by the eponymous bridge, acres of vineyards, olive groves and stunning state parks, and centuries old redwoods as tall as the eye can see. Yes, things really are bigger in America!

Coming Full Circle

Let’s go back to my original comment on the beginning and ending of a novel, and the continuous circle they can present. Life and literature really are all about the journey, and that journey continues ad infinitum. The real challenge is to create a piece of work where the beginning and ending are so closely linked they form a circle. Every writer strives to achieve a scenario where the reader carries the characters with them, wondering what happens after the last page has been turned, and if appropriate, looks forward to the sequel. Beginnings are fun and the first essential step, but the real challenge is the ability to follow through and satisfy your readers once they’ve reached the end.

What do you think is the most important part of a novel? As a writer, do you struggle with the beginning more than the ending? As a reader, how does it color your impression of the book as a whole if it has an unsatisfactory ending?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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