I’m off now for a while – to beautiful, sunny, Greece – see you when I get back – Avril x
I don’t know about you but I tend to think in scenes when I’m working on longer fiction – ‘the what happens next, where does it take place and who is involved?’ question.
I try to see the scene play out in my head – due I’m sure to the influence of film and television, at least I do this for the beginning of the scene, then I write it and see what happens. Sometimes it surprises me.
So how can we make sure our scenes are powerful and move the action forward. What makes a good scene in writing? Here are 10 things to consider
1. A scene must have a setting where the action takes place and it’s the setting that will often give us the opportunity to create the mood or atmosphere e.g. in my current work I’ve just written a scene set in the first snow of winter when my young protagonist hears the men out with their guns, hunting deer. There is blood on the snow etc. the mood is tense and dangerous and this signals the danger for her that lies ahead.
2.As well as happening somewhere a scene happens in time – a writer’s job is to move characters through time and space. Our readers should be in no doubt as to when the scene is happening, so that the sequence of events is clear. It can be quite simply done eg ‘When Johnson woke the next morning…’
3. By the end of each scene the reader should know more about the characters in it. Scenes are never superfluous. They exist to show characters, reveal motivations. They provide information about plot. They move your story forward. If a scene adds nothing to our knowledge of character or conflict, or forward movement of the story then it doesn’t need to be there.
4.Scenes are best begun in action and not exposition. ‘The scene begins when the blue touch paper has already been lit not on the trip to the firework shop.’ Robert Graham. Don’t forget that scenes can also begin with dialogue, which is a very immediate way to get into a scene.
5. The scene itself, like the chapter, like the whole, has a beginning, middle and end, and as such it has a rising arc of tension leading to a point of climax. Some scenes will of course be less dramatic than others but that doesn’t rule out creating narrative tension in smaller ways.
6.Narrative tension can be signalled in our writing – shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and dialogue all add pace.
7.This tension is led by the conflict our characters experience. We ask ourselves – What is their goal? What is standing in their way? Eg. in my scene in the snow (mentioned above) my protagonist’s goal, stated from the very beginning of the novel, is to learn to read, it drives everything she does. The scene begins with her going through the snow to the woman who is secretly helping her. But towards the end of the scene when she arrives back late her secret is uncovered – there is a reversal in her fortune, new obstacles in her way. The scene starts with a plus moves to a minus but at the very end there’s a surprise.
8. A good way to end a scene can be with a surprise or a hook that will keep the reader reading on to find out what happens (used widely in crime fiction)
9.The opening scene of our novel is arguably the most important – it deserves special attention as it’s our chance to hook the reader. In looking at our opening scene we should ask, will this pull the reader in, will they want more?
10. If in doubt think film.
Here I am (It’s so weird seeing and hearing myself like this!) reading a brand new story inspired by my years of working in prison and by the chosen theme for the evening – ‘Relativity.’
Let me know what you think…
For all NEW newsletter subscribers -a FREE PDF, via email, of PART THREE OF MY BOOK ON WRITING – FROM WRITING WITH LOVE – this is the section that deals with writing short stories and includes my top ten pieces of advice on writing short stories, as well as thoughts on: editing, what to leave out, beginnings, endings and fixing a story that’s broken etc. You can sign up for the newsletter and the free PDF on the right – if you want to know more about my newsletter take a look HERE. PS I will always respect your email privacy.
On Tuesday I read at a Fictions of Every Kind Evening in Leeds – it was a great night – here are just 10 things I loved about it
1.The uber cool venue – Wharf Chambers ‘arguably Leeds’ most ‘underground’ bar!’ (Justin R) It’s in Wharf Street off Kirkgate which contains the only surviving remains of medieval Leeds.
3.The democracy of the open mic – there were some great and brave readings (it takes guts to get up there) – my personal favourite was Finn’s. Great to talk with her too.
5.The encouragement cards and pens on elastic, for open mic readers – ‘Do what you love…Don’t listen to anybody else who tells you not to do it’ ‘You don’t learn to write in College,’ Ray Bradbury.
7. Going with my daughter and her partner – they live and works in Leeds, so a night out with them is a real treat.
8. Reading to a truly appreciative audience – it’s always a buzz, and this was no exception.
9. Talking to Dulcie and her mum – I really enjoyed being around so many young people who are so serious about writing and love it so much.
10. The crowd – back to Justin R here: ‘the crowd can get a bit ‘hippyish’ at times; full of anarchists, vegans, ageing hippies, poets, underground artists, socialists, etc.’
My kind of place – thanks so much for having me. And of course I should have added, it all happened here in the NORTH!
This Tuesday – April 14th – I’m reading, at Fictions of Every Kind in Leeds, along with writer Zoe Lambert, and there’s also an open mic. It goes without saying I would love to see you there if you can make it.
Organiser of this non-profit, literary & artistic social, author Sarah Bradley, says: ‘Fictions of Every Kind is a quarterly DIY writers’ night based in Leeds. It has been running for 2 years now and is run by a small group of writers, including myself. Our aim is to provide support and encouragement to anyone involved in the lonely act of writing.’
The theme of the evening is ‘relativity,’ (I had to think hard about that one! But I’ve written a story especially for the evening which goes back to my prison days). I’ve really enjoyed doing it and it’s made me a think a lot about the importance of reading our work aloud to see how it’s working.
I’ve written about this in my weekly newsletter for writers -which you can sign up for on the right or HERE. The list continues to grow, so we are quite a community now, and I’m just writing newsletter 118!
Here is what Fictions of Every Kind have to say about the event
‘Fictions Of Every Kind: Relativity Tuesday April 14th, Wharf Chambers, 23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds (£3 in, 7:30 start)
Boy oh boy, oh Wowzers Trousers, Oh E=MC2, do we have an event for you!
Our April event is themed “relativity”. Whether this means to you warring parents, the passage of time, or the relativeness of things, you can be sure our two invited speakers have a couple of interesting things to say about it. (This even will be hosted by Claire, Jenna, and Sarah.)
Our two invited speakers are:
ZOE LAMBERT Zoe is a short story writer and almost novelist. Her collection, the War Tour, was published in 2012, and her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her latest is Beta-Life, by Comma Press. She is currently working on her novel, That Quiet Longing, and she lectures at the University of Lancaster. www.zoelambert.com
AVRIL JOY was born in Somerset, the setting for her first novel, The Sweet Track. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including Victoria Hislop’s, The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories. She has been shortlisted for a number of prizes including The Bridport, The Manchester Prize for Fiction, and in 2012 she won the inaugural Costa Short Story Aware. Her collection of stories, Millie and Bird, Tales of Paradise, is published in 2015 by Iron Press.’
So, I’m really looking forward to Tuesday, tried out my story on my partner this morning and he gave it the thumbs up so that helps and my daughter lives in Leeds so I’m looking forward to seeing her too.
See you there…
It’s Easter Monday – the sun is out, I’ve managed to drink tea in the garden for the first time this year, I’ve listened to the birds, inspected the tulip pots and in between I’ve been working. Maybe it’s the promise that the sun brings, the unfurling of life that’s set my mind to thinking of competitions and submissions and not just in the UK.
After The Manchester, last year, I vowed, ‘no more competitions,’ because although it’s great to be shortlisted, it’s stressful too. But when I saw the Raymond Carver short story competition I felt the sap rising. This is in part because fellow writers have been urging me to submit my stories set in Arkansas to an American literary magazine. It seems like a worthwhile plan, and the good thing about competitions or submissions is that they push you into improving your work and making it the best it can be.
As yet I haven’t decided whether to enter the competition –
‘Now in its 15th year, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest is one of the most renowned fiction contests in the world. Featuring prominent guest judges and offering $2000 across five prizes, the contest delivers exciting new fiction from writers all over the world.
The contest opens each year April 1 – May 15 and winners are published in the following fall issue in October,’ –
or whether to submit a story. ‘Carve is seeking good honest fiction in the form of short stories.We want emotional jeopardy, soul, and honesty.’ And they pay – $100 per story
Either way I’m already thinking about which stories would be best. I’ve decided on one at least and started on the final edit.
I’ve featured these competitions this week in my free Monday newsletter. My newsletter always contains information on opportunities for getting published – as well as what I hope are useful thoughts and tips on writing – you can subscribe to the newsletter by going to the form at the top right here on the blog.
In my last blog post 15 Things We Should Stop Doing as Writers I wrote, under the heading of 12. Giving Up, –
‘all the best writers suffer rejection, for some the rejections run into double figures but nonetheless they persist. So while we are busy writing the next thing, we should still persist in our attempts to find an agent, or a home for our latest story, a publisher for our novel. Take Eimear Mc Bride: McBride wrote A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing in just six months, but it took nine years to get it published. Galley Beggar Press of Norwich, finally picked it up in 2013. In 2014 it won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.’
I knew nothing of Eimear McBride until she won the Bailey’s Prize, and I wasn’t alone in this. She came out of obscurity published by a small independent press. If you would like to know more about her and her literary heritage you can read an excellent interview HERE in The White Review.
When I first downloaded A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing I was put off by the first few pages. They were too demanding, too experimental. It defied all my ideas about how novels should begin. I felt it was asking too much of the reader and it was going to require reading energy I didn’t have. More recently, I came back to it – I think I knew along this was a book I had to read – and very quickly I was hooked. McBride re-invents language – guttural and thick her language sticks in your throat while dazzling and holding you with its brilliance. At odd times it’s impenetrable but nonetheless the story captivates and compels you forward. It is fiction not memoir but for me it’s as if McBride rips out her soul (yours too) and lays it on the page. This is a raw, haunting novel that moved me to tears and there is so much to learn from her example:
Her persistence should inspire us all- She worked consistently hard on the novel (see interview). After it was finished it took her 7 years before she even began to be resigned to it not being published.
She was uncompromising and brave – She took risks, was experimental, wrote what she believed in. She broke the rules. It was turned down by all the major publishing houses – it was described as unmarketable. She refused to do a re-write or allow it to be marketed as memoir just to get published.
Her heart is on the page – she did not hold back – she was not afraid, or if she was, she went ahead anyway.
She is a writer of integrity, who did not give up
Of course this approach to writing will not necessarily bring success in the conventional terms of publication or prizes but it will bring the satisfaction of writing what we love and believe in, of writing with integrity. It’s time we stopped concerning ourselves with what the big publishers want because after all they are mostly just chasing the money. Hooray for writers like McBride and for the Independents – like Galley Beggar Press.
And whatever you do, don’t GIVE UP.
Here are 15 things I believe we should stop doing as writers, especially if we want to reach our true creative potential and enjoy what we do. I confess I’ve done them all and there are still times when I have to remind myself not to fall back into the bad, old ways…
1. Doubting Ourselves –some doubt can be good, the kind of doubt that asks is this chapter working, can I improve it, does the writing flow, will my character come alive for the reader etc. etc.? This kind of doubt helps us to become better writers.
The doubt I’m referring to is that crippling, ‘I’m no good,’ ‘this is hopeless,’ kind of doubt, the kind that stops us writing in the first place. I think most of us experience doubt like this from time to time and it’s tricky to deal with but when I experience it I ask myself what’s the bottom line? Am I prepared to give up this thing I love called writing? The answer always comes back no and so there is nothing for it but to carry on. The only way I know to banish this doubt is to write on and to cultivate self- belief.
If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced. – Vincent van Gogh
2. Comparing ourselves to fellow writers – it’s easy to look at other writers, especially if they are gaining recognition or success, and compare ourselves to them. Envy creeps in, we’re bound to feel it, we end up either trying to find fault with their writing or finding fault with ourselves. Either way this is no good for our writing. When I feel like this I try to accept and acknowledge my feelings, after all it’s pointless denying them, and then I find something really good, something genuine, to say about my fellow writer. And then I write on. Comparisons are odious, no two writers are alike we each have our own unique voice.
3. Worrying about the market – you can worry and think all day about what’s selling right now, about what agents and editors are looking for, about what will be the next big trend but this won’t improve your writing. My experience of trying to write for agents and changing things for potential publishers (different if you actually have a publisher) led me nowhere other than away from what I loved doing into a world of angst and second guessing and ultimately rejection. So I say write what you love, because at least that way you are true to yourself and you have pleasure and satisfaction in what you do.
4. Putting all our eggs in one basket – pinning all our hopes on one poem, one story, one novel is like loading an only child with expectation that may be impossible to live up to. Fine to re-enter what we think is a good story for any number of competitions over time but in the meantime we must keep writing. It is only through writing that we become better writers and with something new on the go it’s easier to forget about not winning the competition or not securing an agent. Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him I had finished. ‘Good for you,’ he said without looking up. ‘Start the next one today.’ ― Steven Pressfield
5. Complaining –we all like to complain sometimes about how difficult the world of publishing is. But it’s a mistake to get mired in this world of complaining. Complaining breeds negativity, wallowing in negativity is not in the least creative and will do nothing for our writing. In fact it may make us stop altogether. One of things I did when I was unable to get my second novel The Orchid House published was publish it myself. We have that opportunity now, we are no longer totally at the mercy of the publishing house. We can be positive and pro-active.
6. Allow people to cut into our precious writing time – too many people do not see a writer writing as work. They think we have lots of free time to do many other things: the chores, the things on their agenda, social events etc – but we are working and we need to say so. In the past I’ve told white lies and invented deadlines that didn’t exist but now when I find my time being eroded in this way I take my diary, pencil in writing days and say quite clearly –I’m afraid I can’t I’m working that day, that week. End of story.
7. Drinking too much tea and coffee, especially when we’re at the computer is not good for us, we should be drinking water instead – seriously it helps a lot to have a big glass of water to hand and to replenish it frequently. Your brain needs water – ‘Lack of water to the brain can cause numerous symptoms including problems with focus, memory, brain fatigue and brain fog, as well as headaches, sleep issues, anger, depression, and many more.’ Merlin Hearn. If you don’t believe me read more HERE
8. Excusing ourselves from reading – I often hear writers say they’re too busy writing to read. But reading is fuel to our fiction and we must read and we should read contemporary fiction at least some of the time else we risk becoming too isolated and out of touch, out of fuel and too absorbed in our own writing world. ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’― Stephen King
9. Wasting time on social media when we should be writing – I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, spent precious time trawling through Twitter or Facebook, Pinterest etc. instead of getting down to work. One writer I know resolves this problem by writing in a room on a machine with no internet connection. Going out of the house can help with this but in these days of free Wifi it’s only a partial solution, rationing is another. There are no easy solutions but I like to remind myself that an hour of writing makes me feel so much better than an hour on Twitter.
10. Holding on to our fears – as writers we often hold back on what we put on the page. It’s important to think about what we would write if we thought no one was going to read it or no one was going to criticise it – it’s here that the greatest originality and truth of our writing lies. So I say feel the fear and write it anyway. There is nothing that we cannot do as writers. I am currently writing about Arkansas in 1930 in the voice a woman I could never have met. Several years ago I would not have contemplated this. I still think it’s risky but I know it’s time to stop dwelling in the comfort zone.
11. Physically torturing ourselves at the computer – writing can be tough on the hands, back, neck, eyes etc. Long periods at the computer are not always good for our health. We need to take frequent breaks, use ergonomic keyboards, lumber rolls and everything that’s out there to prevent us seizing up. For help and advice on this take a look here.
12. Giving up – all the best writers suffer rejection, for some the rejections run into double figures but nonetheless they persist. So while we are busy writing the next thing, we should still persist in our attempts to find an agent, or a home for our latest story, a publisher for our novel. Take Eimear Mc Bride: McBride wrote A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing in just six months, but it took nine years to get it published. Galley Beggar Press of Norwich, finally picked it up in 2013. In 2014 it won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I need to remind myself of this more – I know sometimes I give up too easily. I guess that’s fear of rejection but rejection comes with the writing territory and we need to thicken our skins and start believing I ourselves. For some of us ignoring our fear of rejection is the very first step to writing the very first page.
One particular road to self-belief and finding the courage to become vulnerable and daring in our lives can be found here with Brene Brown –
13. Working in isolation – writing is a solitary activity but there are great benefits from going out into the world and working with others. If we only spend time in our ivory towers we fall out of touch with people, with life and the world we are writing about. Out there in the world so many ideas lie in waiting, so many other creative people exist, whose ideas can enrich and inspire ours. Taking a poetry workshop with established poets – well outside my comfort zone – led me to a new place in my writing and directly to the success of my story Millie and Bird, inspired in turn by a painting. I’m currently looking forward to running a series of workshops with war veterans – I will meet new people and I know it will influence my writing.
14. Feeling failures, thinking we’re imposters – just because we are not on a longlist, shortlist or any other kind of list, bestseller or otherwise we should not judge ourselves or others as failures. Lots of writers I meet will not call themselves writers because they say, ‘I haven’t been published.’ Not being published does not mean we are not a writer, it does not mean we are failures or imposters. When we write seriously and with intent we are writers whatever anyone else says. There’s only one difference between published and unpublished writers and it is this – the first group see their work in print on the shelves of Waterstone’s or Tesco or online at Amazon; the second group are yet to have physical evidence of the hours, weeks, years spent fashioning words into their patterns. You are already a writer. Kate Mosse
15. Taking life so seriously – I know I’m guilty of this. I’m a very serious person and I think writers often are but I know it’s important sometimes not to take ourselves and what we do too seriously. It’s important to have fun, to live as well as just write. Living life enhances the writing. So go out, shop, dance, sing, fall in love, eat cake, drink wine, share what you’ve learned, help other writers, find the wildest, comfiest or weirdest place to write. Get away from the machine, buy a notebook and pen ( surely we are not writers without these) sit in cafes or bars, take a holiday, observe the world through dark glasses and whatever you do WRITE.