A review of The Secrets of Writing Successful Short Stories by Drew McAdam

If you follow McAdam’s didactic advice to the letter, you will not only end up with a file of suitable markets with a calculated fog index, word count, and samples, but you’ll end up with a ready to submit piece, and if you are as lucky as McAdam himself, even a few relationships with editors. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Secrets of Writing Successful Short Stories:
And how to get them published!
By Drew McAdam
Markethill Publishing
2003, International Edition £9.99, or US Ed $usd17.95 (both .pdf ebooks)

In an article in The Age two years ago, author Frank Moorhouse bemoaned the shrinking market for short fiction in Australia, suggesting that much of the good talent has gone to film and television. Moorhouse himself, however, is contributing to a revolution in the short story industry with his second year of editing the annually produced and very popular Best Australian Stories published by Black Inc. A similar sort of revolution is occurring on a worldwide basis, with short story collections suddenly appearing in top ten lists, and a new range of literary magazines actively seeking stories. While many of these collections and publications in the past seemed to be full of novel excerpts, with the short story treated as the novel’s younger cousin–for writers unable to produce the full deal–it is now being seen as a genre in its own right. It’s no surprise. The short story is perfect for the modern reader with only a few moments in his or her busy day to read. It is a short, sharp hit, ideal for reading in a queue, before bed, or in a brief interlude between the welter of other duties. Not only are short stories excellently suited to a modern reader, but they are an ideal genre for the modern writer as well. A novel may take years to write and then several more years (if you are very lucky indeed) to sell in an overloaded market. A well written story can be done in a few weeks on the outside, and can often find a fast market in one of the many well paying venues from university journals to high profile competitions.

Drew McAdam rightly identifies that there are some very specific rules governing the creation of short stories, and that those rules aren’t difficult to learn. In his succinct book The Secrets of Writing Successful Short Stories he opens with the unusual approach of suggesting that authors who want their stories published begin by researching the market–right down to the average word count (not just the required word count) and ‘fog index’ of published stories. It is only once writers are absolutely clear about who they are writing for, that they should begin the writing. This is actually very good advice, and despite the fact that almost every call for submissions at both highbrow literary journals and popular magazines repeat it in their guidelines, is rarely given (and may even be counter-intuitive). If you follow McAdam’s didactic advice to the letter, you will not only end up with a file of suitable markets with a calculated fog index, word count, and samples, but you’ll end up with a ready to submit piece, and if you are as lucky as McAdam himself, even a few relationships with editors. I have to admit to a fair amount of scepticism about the latter, but the concept, and very specific advice provided is an excellent one, and should at the very least, should significantly increase your chances of getting published by one of the more respected venues for short stories. That’s no small accomplishment. A few published short stories in one of the big journals is enough to get any author on the path to being known and respected, and that is the best door opener there is.

The book also looks at the mechanics of writing a short story and again, provides some simple, didactic rules to increase that all important publication rates, including dealing with viewpoint, setting, plot mechanics and invention (with some sample ideas for plot), characterisation, dialogue, and a very simple outlining process. The book concludes with chapters on editing, polishing and presentation.

McAdam implores writers to be fairly aggressive in querying markets which don’t appear to be open to unsolicited submissions, and provides a range of templates, including a query letter, a sample of his market file, and sample submission letters. Each chapter also contains a series of mandatory exercises, which will take the writer through idea , to conception, and right through to final draft, all targeted towards a ready market. In other words, as the book promises in its hype, if followed, this book will leave authors with a polished story perfect for submission to an ideal market.

As the book is effectively only 80 pages or so, it is a little cursory on some subjects, particularly that of the all important characterisation, and its importance and relationship to driving plot. McAdam’s advice is all sound, but because it is so brief, it doesn’t get the reader to that all important and illusive area of transcendency which is at the heart of the best short stories (something admittedly difficult to teach, especially in a few pages). Also I felt his chapter on themes was actually somewhat misleading. That is, every good story has a theme, it is true, but the cited themes he provides aren’t very helpful, or even true–my reading of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” are obviously very different from McAdam‘s, plus these are more or less fairy tales and the theme for modern literature will often be very different.

The appendix contains a list of “useful similes” which are primarily clichés, and so are only useful in terms of editing them out when they occur in your work. There is also a list of commonly confused ’Soundalike’ words, phrases to spark ideas (also contains quite a few clichés), and an A-Z list of phobias. What would probably have been more useful as appendices are some examples or suggestion readings of excellent short stories in the mode of Raymond Carver, Peter Carey, or Moorhouse. I know that this book takes readers through the process of identifying good work in the journals they want to publish in, but some good references would have been helpful. Nonetheless, this is a useful, well written, and nicely targeted book, which deserves notice particularly for its chapter on “The Market,” and its customer (reader/editor) focused approach. Though the experienced short story writer may not agree with every aspect of this book, it is a simple, easy to follow and well constructed roadmap which focuses directly on publication and is suitable for beginners and more advanced writers.