The latest Comma Press Short Story Course to run at The Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds began on 13th September and it’s an opportunity I’ve been very much looking forward to since I heard of its return to my home turf.
The first session coincided with Roald Dahl Day, an annual celebration of the much loved children’s author, also famous for his short stories. Only this year, instead of hastily cobbling together yet another Roald-related outfit that might just about pass muster in the playground (“no dressing up required” = happy days!) I was eagerly preparing to make a fresh start with short story writing.
I had that distinct back-to-school feeling: anxious (what if I’ve no-one to sit with?), excited (I’m going to learn so much!), anxious (does this notepad make me look boring?), excited (this course could change everything!), anxious (I’d better bring ALL THE PENS).
I needn’t have worried.
The workshops are headed up by novelist and short story writer, SJ Bradley. Having read SJ’s work – and attended several short story events that she’s organised / led / been involved in – the one thing I was reassured to know was that we were going to be in experienced and talented hands.
A brief round of introductions showed a range of writing experience in our friendly group of thirteen, from ‘just starting out’ to ‘published novelist’ and everything in between. Reasons for being there varied but everyone shared a common interest in getting to grips with the short story form. SJ talked a bit about what to expect, stressing that there were no “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” but that we’d be looking at various techniques, styles and ways of working that might be helpful to the short story writing process. The first session would focus broadly on plot, brevity and endings.
We’d been sent some pre-course reading, ‘The Bet’ by Anton Chekov, widely considered to be a (if not the) master of the modern short story. This was my first close encounter with Chekov (I know, I know) and I’d been suitably impressed – as, it seemed, had everyone else – and a lively discussion followed. We agreed that a lot happens in a short space of time so we started out by listing the key events and drivers for the story. Breaking it down like this was a really useful way of analysing how it was done and we segued nicely from here into looking at the ‘Story Spine’, using it as a sort of reverse engineering device for unpacking the structure in more detail and analysing the story as if it were a screenplay. (It’s based on the Pixar Method of storytelling, doncha know).
For our first exercise, SJ had prepared cards, each one containing a single line describing a relationship / scenario, and we had ten minutes to jot down as many possible causes of conflict or differences of opinion as we could dream up. We then read these out to the group and some really playful and quite specific ideas were shared, inspiring more and more possibilities as our conversations went on – a really positive, collaborative effort. Mine involved a couple in a long distance relationship which gave me lots of material but any one of the prompts could have sparked a story just based on this (deceptively) simple exercise.
Then the challenge was to construct a story with the ideas that had most appealed to you using the plot-driven method of the ‘Story Spine’ and the final part of the session was spent focusing on that. Given that writing is normally a solitary pursuit it was great to be working alongside other people in such a productive atmosphere and at the same time to feel totally absorbed in the creative process. The framework was also particularly useful for me, as someone who tends to start working on shiny new ideas without a formal plan and then gets bogged down in detail or loses direction. The requirement to follow through on each stage of the ‘Story Spine’ really pinned down the bones of it (no pun intended) and Where do you want to be at the end? was a helpful question raised and one I will keep in mind.
I’ve come away with a number of possible strands to develop without straying too far from the basic ‘map’ – I even came up with some potential endings (plural!) which can be a sticking point for me.
Now to get to work on it between sessions. I’ve also got to attempt to decipher my own handwriting and make sense of the ten (TEN!) pages of scrawl that are my notes. SJ has offered to critique our stories if we want to bring them with us to the next session in October so that’s a huge incentive, plus I do like (need) a deadline. For now I’ve got tons to go on. I’m thinking about all sorts of things in a way that I wasn’t before: ‘stakes’ (how do you keep reminding your reader what they are?), ‘foreshadowing’ (how might you hint at what happens later?) and ‘economy of language’. Which speaks for itself. And seems like a good place to end.
Monica Dickson is a short fiction writer from Leeds. Her work has appeared in Salomé, Firewords, The Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter, Ellipsis, Spelk, Dear Damsels and elsewhere. She tweets @Mon_Dickson and blogs at https://writingandthelike.wordpress.com/.