On Writing Short Stories
By Francine Prose and Tom
Reviewed By Mamta Murthy
Since my childhood, I have been fascinated
by the world of short stories; Anton Chekov mesmerized me, O Henry astounded
me, and Saki made me laugh with his cheeky character Clovis Sangrail. Years
later, as a struggling writer trying to write great and memorable short
stories, I wasn't meeting with much success.
It was then that a friend gifted me with
the book On Writing Short Stories. To be frank, I was more than a
little skeptical about the book before reading it. How could a book teach
you how to write great stories? It would be something like trying to learn
swimming from a how-to book, I thought.
The book does not teach you how to write
great stories. Instead, it has a collection of essays by seven well-known
writers, each of whom tackles major issues related to short-story writing.
Francine Prose begins, pondering what
exactly constitutes a short story. "Great short stories make us marvel at
their integrity, their economy," she writes. She then goes on to give
several examples to illustrate her points.
Joyce Carol Oates, in her essay, stresses
the importance of reading as a writer. Tom Bailey tackles the essential
elements of short fiction: character, plot, setting and time, metaphor, and
voice. A writer needs to make a habit of writing, according to Andre Dubus,
who offers a marvelous essay on this and
demonstrates the necessity of "the habit of writing" through his illustrious
and gentle prose. Robert Coles explores "literatures as a means of
understanding human affairs." C. Michael Curtis, senior editor for The
Atlantic Monthly, tells how to avoid that dreaded rejection letter and
how best to ensure that your short-fiction submissions are eligible for
"friendly consideration." Frank Conroy, Director of the Writers' Workshop at
University of Iowa, talks about the workshop and dispels myths people hold
about writing workshops. He says, "The student ... should not be looking for
solutions from the other students or from the teacher. The student should be
looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of."
18 classic short stories, including
Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," de Maupassant's "The String,"
Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They
Carried," are part of the book. Each of the short stories included in the
collection captivates the reader in its own way and offers insights to
aspiring writers who are willing to look deeper into the story. I
particularly liked Hemingway's short story; its appeal lay in its
By including these stories immediately
after the essays, the editors of the book have ensured that the reader gains
better insights into what makes a great short story and what constitutes
great story telling. What's more, you don't necessarily have to read the
book in sequence; you are free to turn chapters back and forth and take up
any chapter in any order. The same goes for the stories. The book does not
follow any standard systematic approach, but is rather like an old friend
beside whom you can sit on the porch, in fading daylight, mulling over
things, analyzing and pausing from time to time in deep contemplation.
At the very end, the book contains a
comprehensive list of magazines, journals, and quarterlies that publish
Having this book as an essential part of
your book collection, regardless of whether you are an established short
story writer or aspiring to be one, would definitely be a wise move.
On Writing Short Stories
Edited by Francine Prose and Tom Bailey
Oxford University Press
Published: November 1999
Mamta Murthy is based in Bombay, India. Her