The 20th of June was Short Story Day Africa.
As part of the celebrations the organisers are holding two writing competitions, one for under 12’s and one for 12-18 year olds. I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with students at Parwe Junior Secondary School in Mahalapye on their stories for the competition for 12-18 year olds.
The topic for the competition is “young in the city”. The kids are meant to write a 500 word story on the topic. The students at Parwe wrote their stories before our workshop on the 22nd. My job was to listen and give them advice on how to improve them for the competition. I also encouraged the students to listen and help each other. I’ve found that critiquing other people’s work helps me to improve mine. I learn what works and what doesn’t work. It’s an important part of being a writer.
There are a few mistakes new writers make when writing short stories that these students were not immune to.
1. Writing a story that is too big
This was probably the biggest problem. I always think of a short story as a brief episode in a life that you as the writer must make relevant. Like a laser light shone on a little bit of time. A short story is not just a shortened form of a novel. It is different. It should have some resonance, but the resonance is more than the words on the page, it’s often what is left off that will resonate most with your reader. Don’t give them everything, make the reader work. You must be strategically economical. Everything not absolutely needed must go.
2. Being too moralistic
I’m not sure if it was the topic or the fact that the kids were from Mahalapye, but city for these kids meant destruction and eventual death. If you went out on a date in the city, you were going to be raped and then you’d get HIV and in most cases die.
Though short stories are from our imaginations, readers won’t accept them if they are not truthful to the human condition and humans are all about greys. A drug dealer is tender to his son. An excellent teacher beats his wife. A girl who has sex at fourteen doesn’t get always AIDS and can go on to live a happy fulfilling life. Humans are complex and three dimensional and very problematic. Life is not full of absolutes nor is it usually fair. We should not set out to teach a lesson with a short story. Why? Because such stories are almost without exception boring.
Show don’t tell
Again the students were not exempt from the problem of all new writers- telling your reader everything, not showing them and letting them engage with the story. I think this is made worse when you have a story which is too big for the short story form. You’re forced to get in a lot of back story with few words. Your only option is to tell almost everything. A story like that is not exciting for the reader. Include realistic dialogue, include scenes that move your plot or show characterisation.
This week I’ll get the new revised stories back from these budding writers and I’m excited to see what they’ve done with what they learned. Wish them luck in the competition!