From February to July 2017, I'll be teaching a Comma Short Story Writing Course at Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds. The course is six months long, and consists of six two-hour workshops on the craft of short story writing.
Writing the course has brought me back to thinking about my own development as a short story writer. When I first started writing short stories, way back in about 2006, I had little to guide me. All I knew were the things I'd taught myself, and I didn't know many other writers - I certainly hadn't got many other writer friends at that time - and as I counted up the rejection slips for the stories I sent out, I often asked myself: where am I going wrong?
It was a very hard time, because although I knew I had some good ideas, and a level of good craft, I didn't have anybody to ask.
I've been thinking about this a lot as I wrote the Comma press course. Over the past 10 years of trying, failing, trying, failing, and finally trying, and succeeding, to be a short story writer, I've learned an awful lot. It wasn't until I first started reading Raymond Carver in around 2009, that things finally started to click into place.
The first Carver story I read was Neigbors. (There's a free PDF of it here.) It's short, like so many of Carver's stories - only 8 pages long, and on the surface of it, it doesn't seem to be about very much. A man and his wife agree to water a neighbour's plant, and look after their cat, while the neighbours are away for the weekend. Simple, right?
I read it, and found myself thinking: this story is simple... almost too simple. Nothing really happens! Where's all the drama? The exploding cars? The discovery of an affair? The slapped face, the knife in the back? Needless to say, and probably because I'd been reading so much of Roald Dahl's short fiction prior to this, I really didn't get the Carver love.
But something about the story stayed with me. For days afterwards, I kept on thinking about it. It was in thinking about the story in the following weeks that I came to realise - the drama is there; it's hidden under a veneer of respectability. It's lurking there, quietly, hidden amongst Carver's incredibly well-constructed sentences. It happened to me after the fact of reading Carver's story, as so often does with brilliant literature - I was hooked after the fact.
Can it really contain all the things I remember, I asked myself? So I read it again, and yes, it did. I was amazed that a story could have the power to make me continue thinking about it for days afterwards, and have further realisations.
The next thing I did was to take a book of Carver's entire published works out of the library. This book included the story So Much Water So Close to Home (originally published in Carver's collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). This story, like so many of his other works, is incredibly short - just 7 pages - and yet it has everything. Drama - deceit - betrayal - an unbelievable sense of having the rug pulled out from under you; fully realised characters, a marriage and relationships that all seem completely real and believable - little wonder that Carver is considered one of the masters of modern realism. If you haven't read the story, I won't spoil it for you - I just recommend that you go and read it for yourself.
Carver was my first introduction to absolute mastery in short story writing. What he could do in just a few short pages has never since been equalled by any other writer, in my opinion.
In my Comma Short Story Writing Class we will discuss and learn from one of Carver's short stories; and in the following months we will discover, discuss and learn other short story writers too -- including several modern day writers. Each month the course will cover topics like structure, creation of tension, creating character, and editing and endings.
Every month there will be writing exercises - I will be asking every participant to write a short piece in every single workshop, so there will be plenty of time for writing itself, too.
Numbers on the course are limited - which will allow every participant the chance to have at least some of their work read and critiqued. At the end of the course, following our final class - which will be a session on Editing & Endings - all participants will have the opportunity to have their stories published in an e-Book by Comma. Two reduced fee places are available for writers who are single parents or in receipt of benefits - email Becky at Comma Press to book one of these places (address at the bottom of this link)
You can book onto the course through the Carriageworks website or by calling their Box Office on (0113) 376 0318.
Look forward to seeing some of you there!
Foreigners Caryl Phillips
Homeland Cory Doctorow