WIR #20: Writing the Short Story

Writing the Short StoryBickham, Jack M. Writing the Short Story: A Hands-On Program. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. Copyright © 1994 by Jack M. Bickham.

Jack M. Bickham @ Wikipedia


I love Bickham's books on writing. They're full of such solid, practical advice. The bio at Wikipedia on Bickham says he wrote six instructional books on writing. I own several. In my library are this book, Scene & Structure, Setting, Writing and Selling Your Novel, and The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). So, I own all but one of his how-to books on writing. The volume I'm missing is More About How to Write a Million: The Essential Guide to Becoming a Successful Author (co-authored with Kit Reed and Monica Wood). Having now completed Writing the Short Story, I've read all of the books by Bickham in my library.

Many years ago, I read a book on writing science fiction in which the author spoke of a system involving cards and how much he didn't like it. My memory tells me that what had bothered him was how it made him think that a story couldn't be written unless one had lots and lots of index cards on hand. I suspect this author may have been referring to this particular book. Bickham's system is definitely index-card heavy, but I'm fine with that. I buy a lot of index cards anyway, and use them for all sorts of things: shopping lists, to-do lists, daily reminders, etc. So, I wouldn't doubt if Bickham's system, or some adaptation of it, will work for me.

card cabinetMy father, when he was still alive, had several file cabinets for index cards (for 3" x 5" cards, as well as 4" x 6"), and I thought I still had them, out in the garage. I've checked, however, and I can't find them. I can't imagine what's happened to them. His looked very much like the one pictured here at the left, only they were a lighter grey. This particular cabinet can be found at Amazon, for a little more than $55 per cabinet. I suspect that price is due to their being constructed of steel. They're far better than anything made of plastic, though, and last forever. I've never seen anything comparable made of plastic, and even if I did find one this size, I wouldn't buy it. The smaller, plastic card file holders break all too easily. I think that one this size would be just as fragile, if not more so. This model cabinet holds 1500 cards per drawer, 3000 per unit. I imagine that two or three (6000–9000 cards) would take a good long time to fill up.

Bickham's system involves doing a self-inventory, using file cards, observing people and writing notes of your observations on file cards. Doing market research and noting the things you learn about the magazines you'd like to submit your short stories to, all on file cards. Building your story characters using a system where you write down on a file card a character trait and then devising ways in which to show that trait.

He's fond of file cards because that's the system he uses, but it doesn't matter if the reader uses file cards or some other filing system. The diligent writer will need some sort of system whether she realizes it or not, and getting hung up on Bickham's use of file cards is missing the point.

I've finished reading the book now, although I'm not finished going through his exercises. My plan at this point, since I'm editing "The Limnades," is to use the exercises at the end of the book to help me in editing the story, and then to go back to where I've left off with the exercises and to continue from there.

I recommend this book for the simple reason that it outlines a thoroughly systematic approach to the craft of writing, one that can easily be put to use for years to come. Index cards are a system that does not take up a lot of space. Even if one uses some computerized equivalent, if you're not backing-up your hard drive on a regular basis, what will you do if your computer crashes? Having a digital back-up, as well as a hard-copy back-up is just good business sense. And don't kid yourself. If you wish to make a living as a writer, then that means you're going into business, like it or not, and you'll need to establish good business practices right from the start.

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