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Final Comma Press Short Story Course Blog: 'the end of only the end of the first draft'

The end is only the end of the first draft 

Phil Olsen is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Phil has been guest blogging for Bluecoat throughout our Comma Press Short Story course. 

Comma Press short story course - Workshop 6: 'Editing and Redrafting Your Work', 15 June 2016

A good short story lingers on in the mind long beyond the time spent reading it. Likewise, this series of workshops led by Comma Press author Sarah Schofield has spilled out beyond its monthly two hour classes. Between sessions the group has produced new stories, peer critiqued each other’s work, absorbed masters of the form via an ever expanding reading list, and observed everyday surroundings more attentively – tuning into real dialogue in cafes and on trains instead of blocking out background noise with headphones (apologies if this causes any paranoia about conducting conversations in public places). Sarah wrapped up with a final session that looked at editing, formatting and submitting work to magazines and competitions. We were also joined by founder of Comma Press, Ra Page, who spoke to the group about publishing.

The theme for this month was revisiting, redrafting and polishing work. Reaching the end of a story is really only reaching the end of the first draft. Both Ra and Sarah advised leaving a piece of writing for a while before going back to it. This way it will be more like reading someone else’s writing, and then you’ll be able to decide more objectively what still works and what perhaps doesn’t.

“The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”
Zadie Smith

Recalling our very first writing exercise back in January when we each used a photograph as a starting point for a story (mine was the abandoned swan pedalo, overgrown with pond reeds), in this session we warmed up by writing something based on an object. It didn’t have to be a new story though – the object could be dropped in to create ripples in an existing story. The assortment to choose from ranged from a pocket watch to a set of Russian dolls and from a bottle of Tabasco sauce to the Head Girl badge that I picked up (something I never attained in my youth).

 “It's possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring — with immense, even startling power.”
Raymond Carver

Last month we posed a series of questions to our characters (such as ‘What do you carry in your pockets or handbag?’), regardless of whether or not that information would appear in the story. This month we asked some questions about our objects in order to prompt further story development:

  • Do two people want it?
  • Did it cause a conflict?
  • Was it given to someone who didn’t want, deserve, or appreciate it?

All of these seemed to be speaking directly about the Head Girl badge and that corridor scuffle I had after Double Maths back in 1993.

When it comes to formatting a story ready for submission, the advice was to keep things clear and consistent – no zany fonts in an attempt to grab attention. Let the content do the work.

For novel writers trying to get published, it is helpful to have an agent, a synopsis and an elevator pitch (where you’re able to sell your idea in thirty seconds). Ra suggested it is a different game for short story writers, however. While the dream might be to have a single author collection of stories, these are seen as risky and low-selling by publishers and as a result are usually reserved for established writers. New writers should try to get single stories out there – submitting to journals and magazines as well as entering competitions. From there you might get a writing commission on a theme or be included in a multi author anthology.

So the trick is to keep on writing stories and keep on sending them out there. Pepper the world with them.

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
Ray Bradbury

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Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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