On Saturday 1 August writers came together at Maruapula School (thanks for the room, MAP!) for the Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) short story workshop. It was a one-day event packed with information for writers. The objective was to improve the quality of the submissions for the Bessie Head Short Story Award later this year.
Writers around the country were asked to submit a 500 word story if they were interested in attending the workshop. From there twenty-two writers were chosen. Sadly, of the twenty-two only ten managed to attend, but at least those ten seemed committed to writing and improving their stories. I hope we’ll find their names among the winners later this year.
The facilitators were three past Bessie Head Literature Award winners: Wazha Lopang, Wame Molefhe, and me. Topics covered included: what makes a story a story, show don’t tell, point of view, tips for writing stories and the importance of reading, building tension, and writing realistic dialogue. The guidelines for this year’s contest were discussed by Trust member, Dr Mary Lederer.
Wame Molefhe explained that presenting facts is telling, but showing in your stories is the real challenge. When writers are able to show the reader what they see in their mind, the reader will stay interested. A story that is all telling is a boring story. She used Unity Dow’s novel Far and Beyond to give examples of how a writer writes so as to show. She gave participants a writing exercise where they had to describe an angry man and a beautiful woman without using those adjectives and instead getting the reader to see and come to the conclusion that the character is either angry or beautiful.
Wazha Lopang taught the group about point of view and why a writer chooses one point of view over another to tell their story. Choosing between first person, second person, or the various types of third person will depend on how you want to tell your story. He explained how each point of view puts restrictions on the writer. For example, if you choose first person and the narrator is an eight year old boy, you cannot expect him to know the intricacies of a car’s carburettor.
Wame Molefhe warned the participants not to use dialogue as an information dump. The people talking already know things about each other. For example if two friends are talking, a clumsy writer might want to get in the information about how they became friends through a conversation. If one of the friends says in a normal conversation- “When we became friends in standard one, when we were seven and living in Serowe.” – that would be an unrealistic conversation and a good example of an information dump.
Molefhe also spoke about how dialogue is punctuated, which was quite important since many writers are unsure about the punctuation around dialogue and tend to leave it out of their stories because of that fear, making the stories worse for it. She gave pointers on the use of dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she asked, he whimpered, etc.) which again was very useful.
Lopang gave a list of ways to build tension into your stories. Dramatic tension is what keeps readers interested in the story, without it they will stop reading. Some of the things Lopang mentioned were sentence length (short sentences up the tension), the manipulation of time, repetition, italics, and the weighing of options by the character. When manipulating time, meaning cutting back in time at the peak of a dramatic scene, a writer can leave the reader wanting to know what happens. He also explained how repeating a phrase or italicising it can also create tension. He gave the example of a person coming home and finding their front door open. You might write: The door is open. What could that mean? The door is open. Or: the door is open. Either option emphasises the fear in the character’s head and ups the tension for the reader.
Mary Lederer explained the guidelines for the contest this year. It is only for short stories, unlike in the past. The prizes are being sponsored by Diamond Educational Publishers. The deadline for the submissions (which can only be done by email) is 15 September. All details for the contest can be found here.