For over a decade, the Comma Short Story Course has been offering emerging short fiction writers across the UK the opportunity to develop their practice and see the work they develop publish in a special Comma eBook anthology.
Over six sessions (once a month for in-person courses and once a fortnight for online courses) you will learn about short story narrative structures, character development, plot, characterisation, endings and much more, and how to apply the most appropriate of these techniques to your work. You will also benefit from structured, peer-driven feedback and personalised tuition.
We make our courses as accessible as possible: they span the UK and take place throughout the year; you don’t need any previous experience – just enthusiasm for short story writing; and you only need a pen, paper, laptop/computer, and internet access to take part and keep in contact.
Our courses are led by some of the UK's leading short fiction writers and we consistently receive positive feedback from attendees.
for aspiring writers, translators and publishers
We host three conferences across the year.
Our National Creative Writing Industry Day, in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School, takes place early November each year and provides participants with a unique introduction to the publishing industry and its professionals. Each year features a star-studded line-up of authors, agents and editors, with workshops and precious one-to-one pitching sessions with key literary agents. Keynote speakers have previously included Costa Book Award winner Caleb Azumah Nelson, Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award winner Sharlene Teo, and Irish Book of the Year winner Kit de Waal. Catch up on previous year's keynotes, panel discussions and agents' advice here.
Translating the North (formerly known as 'Manchester in Translation') is an opportunity for budding translators – or those with a passion for languages – in the North of England to develop practical skills essential for a career in literary translation through specialist workshops, discussions and talks, and to engage with the wider debates around translation theory and practice.
The Publishing Conference is a two-day mini-conference for aspiring and early-career publishers, designed to make publishing more transparent and to increase accessibility to the sector, particularly for those in the North of England.
Publishing Seminars & Mentorships
Through the Northern Fiction Alliance, Comma co-hosts a series of quarterly CPD seminars on different aspects of the publishing process, in partnership with the Publishers Association, bringing experts and leading practitioners to share their experience and best practice with emerging and independent publishers in the North (open to poetry and non-fiction publishers as well as publishers based in the Midlands).
Through the Northern Fiction Alliance, Comma coordinates a series of mentorships between emerging and independent publishing professionals, and senior practitioners in the wider publishing industry. Contact Sarah Cleave for more information.
One of the many steps we are taking to address the lack of representation within the publishing industry is demystifying the process of breaking into it. Whether as a writer, translator or aspiring publisher, we believe that everybody deserves an equal opportunity to work in this essential cultural sector. Below you can find a series of free online resources offering advice and guidance for those looking to make their first steps into publishing.
Short Story Course tips
Short Story Course tips
Lectures on classic short story writers
How to get an agent
Interviews & agents from NCWID videos on Youtube
How to break into publishing
Videos from publishing conferences
How to break into translation
Videos from Manchester in Translation
Our Youtube Channel
The Dinesh Allirajah and Emerging Translator Prizes
The Dinesh Allirajah Short Story Prize
Co-hosted by the University of Central Lancashire, this award is open to both published and unpublished writers, and is devised to identify and showcase the best short story talent in the UK.
Dedicated to the memory of Dinesh Allirajah, a short story champion, creative writing lecturer, poet and sometime director of Comma Press, who passed away suddenly in 2014, the award pays homage to Dinesh's unique passion and understanding of the short story. There are no restrictions on entry; no entry fees nor any requirements to be published.
The deadline for each competition is 31 October, and each year has a theme, which is set in May of that year. (Watch this space for updates!). Ten stories are shortlisted, and each of them is published by Comma in an eBook anthology. The winner receives £500 from UCLan and has their story published in Northern Soul, our media partner.
The prize is open to anyone aged 18 or over, residing in the UK, providing the story submitted has not been published anywhere else, online or in print. Previously shortlisted writers have included playwrights, screenwriters and visual artists.
Keep up to date on when entries open by signing up to our mailing list.
The Comma Press Emerging Translators Award
Hosted in partnership with Bristol Translates Summer School at the University of Bristol, this annual translation competition is aimed at emerging translators looking for their first publishing opportunity. Each year, summer school participants will be invited to submit a sample translation from a chosen language into English, with the best translator being commissioned to translate a single story for a forthcoming Comma anthology. The winner will benefit from editorial support and feedback from an in-house editor, and will see their work appear alongside established literary translators.
Bristol Translates summer school takes place entirely online, making it accessible to participants around the world. Find out more here.
Here are just some of the many great short stories we would recommend you read.
Exercises & Tips
See here for an explanation of some of the terms used.
1. Writing Epical Stories
The knack to writing an epical story is writing it backwards. First, you work out how you are going to misdirect the reader, fundamentally at the final turn, and what the final ‘direction of travel’ will be, what truth it will assert about your character(s). Then, you spend the remaining 99% of your time, trying to make a convincing, absorbing and also far-from-predictable story that will point in the other direction (for the bulk of the story).
Withholding and Misdirecting
The thing which drives a reader to turn the page, to stick with a story, to move not just from paragraph to paragraph, but from sentence to sentence, is a single magnetic force: the readers’ faith in the fact that they are not just having certain information withheld from them, but that the information, when it comes, will provide order, shape and meaning. That the story will be structured meaningfully; that there will be sense to ‘the universe of the story’, even if it's being kept from the reader for now.
The withholding of key information is part of what whets the readers’ appetites and keeps them hungry, but it’s only half of that hunger… the other half is a sense that there is an order at work, behind the withholding of info. This order must itself be a lie; a misdirection. The complete picture being glimpsed at, incompletely, by the reader (who, presumably, is joining the action in medeas res) is a falsehood, a fallacy. It is underpinned by a truth that is its very opposite – namely the final revelation that lands on the story in the last scene. However, as the vast majority of the story is about setting up and pointing in the direction of a ‘false picture’, that false picture actually takes more of the writers’ time and skill (presenting it in glimpses) than the underlying ‘true picture’. In this, the epical story is rather like a magician’s conjuring act. The magician will spend the majority of their time misdirecting the audience – asking members of the audience to check up their sleeves or tap the bottom of their hat, or talking to his beautiful assistant – when, in reality, all of these flourishes are designed to draw the audience’s eye away from where the real sleight of hand is taking place. Writing plot is all about misdirection. How many layers of misdirection you need usually depends on the type of story you’re writing. If it is a literary, psychological or domestic-realist story one misdirection is usually sufficient – classic epiphany stories like Joyce’s ‘Araby’ or Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ spend all their time directing the reader one way (to believe one set of motivations and opinions), only pulling the rug out from under that picture at the last moment, to reveal an altogether different picture. If it’s a thriller story, playing to a thriller audience, then two or three misdirections may be necessary.
The revelation, the turning-point where one picture gets replaced with another, has to relate to the fundamental nature of someone the reader has already become familiar with (and thought they knew). The revelation is worthless if it’s about a relatively new character, who only arrives late in the story. In the case of thrillers, it needs to require a major redefinition of a character: a good-guy becomes a bad-guy, or vice versa. Thus, with thrillers plots, where a certain number of characters is usually required (often somewhere between 7 and 11), certain classic devices are often used to wrong-foot the reader from the start. Two common examples of these:
(i) The Unequal Ally
This is often a friend, a lover, a business partner, someone close (and perhaps long-standing) who for some reason is slightly at odds with the protagonist; for example, a long-term begrudging business partner, a less-than-perfect boss, a better-looking lover. This allows the protagonist (and/or the reader) to doubt them early on, and consider them as an agent or assistant to their nemesis. The final revelatory picture will show them to be as much a victim of the nemesis as anyone.
(ii) The Obviously Corrupt Official
This is someone supposedly working for the forces of good (e.g. a police force, or a government official) who shows immediately dubious qualities, aggression, truculence, etc. Suspicions are meant to fall on them immediately. But once again, when the final revelatory picture emerges, they turn out to be one of the few people the protagonist can truly rely on. The real nemesis (or the primary agent of the nemesis) is often one of the very first people the protagonist meets when starting a case; the protagonist’s closest ally and ‘guide’, in fact, in that case.
A key rule of thumb with literary plots is ‘less is more’. A masterclass of this is Joyce’s opening story in The Dubliners, ‘The Two Sisters’. This is the first task of Exercise 1: read ‘The Two Sisters’. This is a shockingly short story, cruelly short, describing and summing up an entire life, hinting at a downfall that isn’t even fully described, and lifting off abruptly – brutally abruptly – before anything is remotely concluded. We see glimpses of there being a problem with the priest – allusions to it in the comments and unfinished sentences of Old Cotter, but that’s all. This story is also a classic example of the short story’s ‘informational structure’:
Act 1: We stand, with the protagonist, on the brink of an ending (or a change)
Act 2: We see some of the back-story, the reasons why this represents a change or an ending, the context of how the protagonist got to that point. Within this Act we also see the protagonist’s attempts to avoid the change that’s approaching, negate it, and/or we learn of how he’s negated or avoided it in the past.
Act 3: We step off the brink – with the protagonist – into the unknown of that change.
The story explicitly acknowledges this ‘starting at the end’ structure, with its opening sentence: ‘There was no hope this time.’ The unknown, into which the protagonist steps at the very end, is his new, evolving perspective on the priest.
The misdirection in this story is with regard to the fundamental nature of the priest. The narrator wants to put him on a pedestal, as his mentor, and seeks to defend him later. But the revelation is hinted at. The grey face of the now-dead priest that troubles him in a dream wants to confess something. But Joyce turns the idea of the confession on its head, and presents a moment where nothing is confessed, nothing is learned.
Your task: to write a story using any one of these devices. But remember, the ‘false picture’ will require more work than the underlying ‘true’ one.
2. Writing Lyrical Stories
The challenge in writing lyrical stories is finding a central image the symbolism of which is not obvious. Obvious symbols – the kind that readers can decode and understand instantly – don't work. A brick represents a house, a bird represents a thought, a toss of the coin represents fate, etc, etc – these obvious symbols leave the reader with nothing more to do. "I get it," they say, and having nothing more to do become redundant. The text loses them.
Instead, you need to find an image that has a lack of logic to it – one which is the reader struggles to understand the exact relevance of. "I don't get it," they need to be saying. And yet the symbol must also be oddly perfect, despite its lack of logic. Despite its lack of external sense it needs to seem assured of its own role, to sit and wait while the reader struggles to work it out.
Not asking much are we?
One way to unpick this is to ascribe to the mantra: readers are smarter than writers. Our reading intelligence is collective, instinctive, hardwired and ancient. As Robert Mackee puts it in Story, when we all shuffle into a cinema and get ready to watch a film (or for that matter start to read a book) our collective intelligence leaps. Our narrative-brain is genius-like. Everybody gets it.
Always bear this simple fact in mind. The reader is as smart as you (smarter, even), the reader will catch up with you, sniff out what you're doing, get your number. That's why, you have to pull off some of the hardest tricks in literature, you have to follow impulses that even you don't fully understand.
Instead of trying to think 'What might be a good symbol for X?', instead of trying to fox it out like a writer, approach it like a reader. Trawl your own memory or knowledge or reading around a subject... and look out for something in it that you as a reader can't work out or resolve... Look for something that niggles, that stands out, that doesn't fit...
Firstly, think of 10 images – random, odd, unconnected, self-assured, out-of-place, independent. Just strong vivid images on their own.
Allow them to be slightly silly or rubbish in places. Don't try and explain them. Let them find you.
The important thing is that there are a lot of them.
Then, pull back the camera and see if they need any kind of setting (location or time or context). If they insist on any setting, then describe it, fill in the detail. If they insist upon a certain type of character to be looking at them, encountering them in some way, then pull the camera back some more.
Compiling this 'list of annoying, niggling images' may take some time.
Pulling back the camera will also take time.
It must be done this way round.
This has to be done on a completely separate day, in a different mood, using a different part of your brain.
Think of a character who isn't able to express something, or communicate something, for one reason or another.
Make the reason for him/her not being to express it not obvious and not compulsory – another ambiguity or mystery. Don't make it a compelling reason (i.e. a medical inability), make it seemingly voluntary.
Then, as before, pull back the camera.
Make sure you are not thinking about the previous exercise. Then and only then some connection may... if you're exceedingly lucky... suggest itself.
Then combine the two – seamlessly. The person who can't express something + the ultimate 'lyric' symbol that beams out meaning, on behalf of the person who can't express the thing they want to.
Revise and edit down. And see what happens.