3 Short Stories, By Lily Tolstoy

Comments for the Writers' Workshop


This is a sample based on a recent original report.  Names, places and themes have been altered to protect the author's privacy. Large sections of the report have been deleted to keep the length manageable. Deletions are indicated by square brackets.

General Comments:
These three stories have a reflective, melancholy feel, as their protagonists look back over their lives.  That pervading undercurrent of regret, of disappointment, is counter-pointed with a sharp twist at the end, often giving a sign of hope for the future.  The twists-in-the-tale, are cleverly thought out and provide a genuine element of surprise.  Along with this the sentiments expressed in your stories are often profound.

However, while there are signs of promise in your stories, my sense is that these are very early efforts, that you are only just flexing your writing muscles in fact.  If this is the case, then the Short Story is a great place to start.  Many new authors take their first writing steps with this form.  It’s not hard to see why. The shorter wordcount, is much less intimidating than embarking on the average 75,000 or so words required in a novel.  Keeping to a shorter word-count also teaches economy, along with really effective use of language.

This is not to say that writing Short Stories is easy. Far from it. The literary short story is actually a very distinctive form, more akin to poetry than the novel, in that character, imagery and language will be used to stunning effect.  Such stories resonate far beyond their boundaries.  Then there are the more commercial magazine stories, where a light read to go with the morning coffee is all that’s required.

What both these types of stories will have in common though, is a compelling main character, someone the reader can really care about.

I’m afraid I didn’t really find that the case with these particular stories.  Your protagonists are rather two dimensional, and therefore fail to come across as real flesh and blood people.  Another major problem is that you have fallen into a very common beginner-writer trap, in that you are telling rather than showing, something which makes it hard for readers to engage with the story.

I wouldn’t want you to worry too much at this stage.  Writing from the heart, and just getting ideas down on paper is the important thing. Good writing is to my mind a kind of magic, or alchemy, which can take months or more often years of endless scribbling to emerge.  However, the Craft of Storytelling is another thing altogether.  By understanding the basic writing concepts, and becoming aware of common pitfalls, we can get our ideas and imaginings across much more effectively.

 In this Report therefore, I’d like to go back to basics a bit, and look at some of these concepts, relating them to key points in these specific stories, whilst also improving your writing skills generally.

Vividly drawn characters that leap from the page, are the lifeblood of all fiction, and this applies equally to the short story as to the novel.  The author’s job is to convince the reader that his/her characters are real people with real problems.  Naturally in a short story, there is not the space for the luxury of prolonged character development.  Characters are disclosed in action, and dramatic encounter.  This is why many short stories actually open at a point of conflict, or crisis in a person’s life. How they resolve that crisis will drive the narrative towards its conclusion.

Where many new writers go wrong, is that they think up a situation, and then propel their hapless protagonist through the plot, much as a puppeteer pulls the strings of a puppet.

This is not characterization.  Characterization is much more than giving someone a name and having them drift about aimlessly thinking of this and that.

A strong, believable character will have the faults, and contradictions and foibles, of a real human being.  Otherwise, why should we believe in them?  And why should we care enough about to them to keep reading?

If we look at your story ‘Protection’ for instance, while the sentiments and situation are recognizable, the parents, Steve and Jane, could be any-man, or any-woman.
We have no idea of what these people even look like!  One of your first tasks as a writer, is to ‘paint the picture’ for the reader.

See how Kate Atkinson does this with her story ‘Inner Balance’, in which she sketches out the picture of consultant Mr. McFarlane.
He has dark hair that’s thinning and cheap wire-rimmed glasses that make his eyes enormous.  His eyes are the colour of the Water of Leith, grey and dirty, but full of compassion for everything from Alistairs’ scarred eardrums to the thread coming loose from the rainbow sleeve of June’s jumper.
June is of course in love with Mr. McFarlane!  But do you see how the use of specific detail, brings this character vividly to life for the reader.

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Good characterization is much more than simply sketching in a visual impression, necessary though that is. 
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The importance of the idiosyncratic detail which makes a person and his/her situation, real cannot be stressed too much. Good characterisation is really down to good observation.  The best characters are based on real people, or composites of people the author knows.  The material is all around you; in your friends, family, but most of all from yourself!  Don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper inside yourself as a source for fiction, as your own emotions will help to breathe life into your characters.

Show Don’t Tell:
If you want to write vivid, sparkling fiction, then it’s vital to understand this basic concept.  Really it means exactly what it says.  Don’t tell your readers what’s going on reportage style, show, i.e. dramatize your characters and events in action so the reader can see and hear them as if on a screen or stage. 
All three of your stories are almost wholly narrated (told), and this creates a distancing effect for the reader. 
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Now, obviously a novel or short story is not a screenplay.  You can’t write up every single conversation/encounter in full; that would be tedious.  Some telling will always be necessary to either back track or to move the narrative forwards.  The trick for the fiction writer is to decide which events need to be shown as scenes, and which can be told.  As a general rule of thumb, the more important the events/emotions, the more necessary to show as direct action, otherwise the reader can feel cheated.

This is, as I say, a factor which is undermining all three of these stories. 
The reader is asked to imagine a world, in which we can’t see or hear or feel involved with any of the characters. Obviously this is a key concept for you to learn, if you want to improve your writing skills.  Rather than devote too much space in this report however, you might want to check out the excellent Free Advice pages on the Writers Workshop Website. If you can get to grips with when to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell’, I think you will be surprised at how it can enliven your writing generally, sharpening pace, and strengthening both storyline and character at one stroke.

Structure and Narrative Drive:
This refers to the dynamic or energy if you like, which pushes a story towards its conclusion.  With at least two of these stories, this energy is missing rather.  There is a meandering feel, as your protagonists wander about thinking, or reflecting on the past.  And so we have a rather dull commentary….
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 This is a sure sign that the author is not sure where the story or indeed his characters are going, or what he is trying to achieve. 
Don’t worry, you are not alone here. This is such a common beginner mistake.  I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read, where the main character is endlessly looking out of a window/gazing into a mirror/walking through woods or along the street and either thinking about the past, or worrying about the future. 
Again, this is very much linked to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, but it also undermines structure.  In fiction, you really can’t have pages where characters do nothing very much but think.  Instead you have to focus on ways you can structure your story, in order to show their problems/emotions/circumstances in action.

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The problems highlighted under the previous headings, really come down to your dependence on ‘Back-Story’, in at least two of these pieces. Sometimes of course, there will be a need for back-tracking, however bogging a story down with repeated angst, memory and introspection is a classic beginner’s pitfall. Try to keep your stories immediate and in the moment where possible, as this is what gives a narrative movement.  Where you do need to bring in the past, you can just as easily reveal it by present moment dialogue and action.  Very often this is about allowing readers to make their own connections, rather than spelling everything out for them.
Or you could use the device of setting up the protagonist’s current situation in a brief couple of paragraphs, before plunging back and writing the past up as active present, i.e. extended flashback.

Quality of Writing:   
 Good writing might come naturally to a few very gifted authors, but on the whole it is something which comes with practice, and continued effort.  All very well, but what exactly is good writing?  Isn’t this a matter of personal taste?  Or is it something we can all recognize?
Someone once said, that ‘good writing should sound good on the tongue’, and I would concur with that.  This is why it’s so useful to read work aloud.  It’s amazing how the ear will pick up poor syntax, or overwrought passages, which the eye misses on screen, or on the page.  This is a tip I think you might find valuable, as there are occasions when the writing becomes a little repetitive and clumsy. 
You will find I’m sure, as most beginners do, that your writing strengthens with every story you write.  Endless practice is the only way to improve.  Along with this though, I’d strongly recommend that you read as many good short stories and anthologies as you can.  It’s absolutely true that ‘good reading makes good writers’.  See how other writers use language, in many cases like a precision tool, finding fresh ways to convey common experiences.  Read them aloud, and see how the best prose keeps to a rhythm which is actually pleasing to the ear.
When presenting manuscripts it’s usual to use a black font.  It is also essential to number the pages!

The Way Forward
These twist-in-the-tale stories are not without merit, and all three have potential for further development.  I hope you won’t find these criticisms too daunting. While I’ve focussed on some of the basic writing techniques, and pitfalls, the great thing at this stage is to explore, experiment, basically to have fun with your writing.
For mutual encouragement and feedback along the way, you might also want to think about joining a Writers Group.  For one in your area you might contact the National Association at www.nawg.co.uk, but try to ensure there’s a good range of abilities and experience.
You might also like to subscribe to some of the Writing Magazines, like ‘Writer’s News’, which gives an idea of what’s going on in the industry, including articles, interviews with writers and agents, and also details of competitions. 
Finally, Lilian, thank you for giving me this chance to read your work, and I very much look forward to talking this report through with you