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Allow yourself to write badly

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

Comma Press short story course  - Workshop 1: 'Introductions', 6 January 2016

Twelfth Night seemed like a good date to start the first of six Comma Press Short Story workshops at Bluecoat (if twelfth night is indeed 6th January… which apparently it might not be). Actually scratch that – Twelfth Night is a 220 page play and what we’re interested in here is short fiction.

Author Sarah Schofield was our guide and the theme of the first session was appropriately ‘Introductions’.

Motives for finding ourselves on the course and sitting around the same table ranged from wanting to shake things up and give oneself a fright, to having the writing bug reignited in the third person (being signed up to the course as a Christmas present). Some had been writing for years and wanted to apply a more formal structure to their work while others were coming at it fresh-faced or as a change from art, copywriting, theatre, teaching, comedy, day-to-day life.

We were based in Bluecoat's library for the first workshop. Sixteen writers, all with motives of one sort or another, in the library, with the lead piping.

Over the next six months the course is going to be looking at three specific short story types; ‘The Epical Story’ (me neither), ‘The Lyrical Story’ and ‘The Artifice Story’. I’ll be reporting back on these in greater detail in future blogs as we delve into each one. (If you can’t wait for that, Comma Press gives the proper definitions here. In a nutshell though, Epical Stories are traditional tales with a twist or a ‘reveal’ at the end; Lyrical Stories are less focused on plot and tend to have an open or ambiguous ending; and Artifice stories have a deliberate clash or intertwining of two elements that wouldn’t normally meld.

The art of knowing exactly which of these types any given story is can come later – and perhaps should come later (after it is written, or once it has been read).

For this session we discussed what made short stories different to novels, aside from length. We mostly agreed that we’d be more prepared to stick with unlikeable characters in short stories – in a novel we’d want to be able to empathise with the protagonist in order to join them on a long journey. Perhaps this is why there are plenty of dark humoured and macabre short stories. The group also came to the conclusion that short stories don’t give you much background information; the reader has to ponder on that stuff for his or herself – often for some time after finishing reading. Sarah gave us lots of quotes from authors defining and championing the short form, and this one from Emma Donoghue summed it up nicely for me:

‘The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side.’

We undertook not one, but two writing exercises in the class. The first was an ice-breaker exploring the history of our respective names (Ancient Greek lover of horses, at your service) and the second involved choosing an image from a selection of photographs to take inspiration from. I picked up an unloved swan pedalo, overgrown with pond reeds. Both of these activities helped us put pen to paper and get past the fear of a blank page.

Sarah stressed the importance of “Allowing yourself to write badly”. If you get it written down then you’ve got something to work on. Something to redraft and make better.

In February we’re looking at the shape, structure, features and effect of the Epical Story. Stories with a twist or an epiphany at the end. (Hey wait, is the Epiphany the 6th January? Maybe I should’ve gone with that instead of the Twelfth Night thing… Is it too late to do that?)



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