Three-time CBC Literary Prize winner Caroline Adderson shares how to write a great short story

The author behind A Russian Sister explains how studying the work and process of the prolific short story writer can improve your writing abilities.
A Russian Sister is a novel by Caroline Adderson. (Jessica Wittman, Patrick Crean Editions)

Caroline Adderson is a three-time winner of the CBC Literary Prizes. Her books include the short story collections Bad Imaginings and Pleased To Meet You and the novels The Sky is Falling and Ellen in Pieces.

Her latest novel, A Russian Sister, is about a brother and sister living in 19th century Russia, whose close relationship unravels when a young woman moves in with them. It's a story that inspired Anton Chekhov's 1895 play The Seagull

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is now open and accepting submissions until Oct. 31, 2020.  You can submit your original, unpublished fiction here.

The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have their work published on CBC Books.

Adderson spoke to Garth Materie on Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition on CBC Radio about writing short stories and why Chekhov was a master of the craft.

The three-time CBC Literary Prize winner talked to Garth Materie about writing short stories and her new book, A Russian Sister. 7:36

Focus on character

"Focus on character. Take us into the heart of the person you're writing about and their experiences. Chekhov's work is so compassionate. His characters are often failures or fools. Yet they are so lovably rendered, we can't help but feel for them.

Take us into the heart of the person you're writing about and their experiences.

"His characters were so flawed and so funny, and the situations are ordinary but funny. Then the next turn, you're crying your eyes out because some awful thing has happened. Then you're back laughing again. It's how I feel life is. He perfectly depicted it, even though these stories are set in the 19th century in Russia. They're incredibly modern, the situations and the things the people are going through. He transcends time."

Choose your words wisely

"Focus on the prose and to make it sing. A short story is more like a poem than a novel and every single word counts.

Focus on the prose and to make it sing.

"There are about 10 preliminary readers for this content, who determine the longlist and move it onto the final judges. They are reading hundreds of stories. I've actually had that job — I know that you're reading and reading, and your eyes start glazing over. If your story is the one that has a first page shimmering with perfect language, it's going to catch their eye. You really, really want to focus on that language."

Practice makes perfect

"[Chekhov] started writing as a medical student at the Moscow Faculty of Medicine and his family was destitute and depended upon him. He started supporting them by writing short stories. One year, he published 100 comic short stories. That gave him the background to go on and become the great artist that he became. But you can see his trajectory. It was because he was disciplined. His situation forced him to be disciplined.

You have to put your butt in the chair every single day and push through.

"You have to do it to get any good at it. You have to put your butt in the chair every single day and push through. The talent part comes with the discipline. Discipline at the beginning is actually more important than the talent."

Caroline Adderson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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