Five reasons your plot might be stalling – and how to kick-start it again

Our Writing a Novel students have been tackling the subject of Plot vs Story this week, getting to grips with the selection and ordering of events within their novel and how best both can serve them. It’s something we’ve been talking about in the office too, especially as I started a new project for NaNoWriMo this month, which then fell down at the 20,000 word mark – not-so-coincidentally the point at which my outline also ended. I’ve experimented a lot with plotting and planning over the past few years, trying to figure out what works best for me (too detailed an outline and I lose interest; not enough of one and clearly I falter at the first hurdle).

But whether you’re a planner or a pantser, there are all kinds of ways in which your plot can go off the rails when you’re working on a first draft. Here are five of the most common.

You’re lacking connection

Plot is all about causality – it’s the why to your story’s who, what, when and where. How does this scene you’re showing us affect what comes next – and how was it related to what came before? These moments of connection, the feeling of pieces falling into place, are the driving force of a novel. So if everything happening in yours feels too disparate, too random, it can end up being boring for a reader, giving them no sense of something to follow. 

This doesn’t mean every novel must consist of a chain of tightly connected, dramatic events – twist followed by bomb disposal followed by marriage proposal and another twist for good measure. Yes, action often leads plot, but change occurring in a smaller, more internal sense is just as valid an engine in a more character-led novel. Having said that, even in a novel where not much is externally happening, you still need to be thinking of the why. Why is this happening to these characters at this moment – and why is important for us to see? 

You’ve got it all going on

At the other end of the scale, it’s easy to overcrowd your plot; to load it up with scenes and moments and key events to interest your reader. While this can have a propulsive effect, it can quickly become overwhelming. Giving us too many potential paths and connections, too many ways in which the novel could branch off (Why is that character doing that? Is this significant? What happened back in 1964 and why does that character keep mentioning it? Whose hat is that?) is confusing – instead of having no sense of something to follow, we start to wonder which thread we’re supposed to be most engaged with. 

Try going back to the drawing board – this could be a whiteboard and markers, or a roll of wallpaper and post-it notes, or (my new personal favourite) a good old Excel spreadsheet. Write down each of the key plot points in the novel, colour-coding them so you can see whether it’s to do with the main storyline or a sub-plot. You can further colour-code to show whether it’s a turning point – something dramatically important – or a quieter moment (and if you’ve got multiple narrators or viewpoints, chuck in a marker for those too). Looking at the beats in the bare bones of your structure like that, do they seem well-balanced? Or do they cluster together? Do any of them seem repetitive or unnecessary when viewed with the rest?  

Where you’ve ended up doesn’t fit with where you started out

No matter how meticulous a planner you are, novels have a way of surprising you as you write. The better you get to know your characters, the keener the sense you have of how they would react in certain situations, and that alone can change the plot you thought you had all nailed down. And if you set off without any of that in the first place, well, all the more mysterious the journey and its destination. 

The thing is, often the end of a story is what must inform its beginning. The two need to feel linked, as if the place we leave our characters was in some way inevitable from the moment we met them. And sometimes (most of the time!) as a writer it’s not possible to have that until you’ve walked the story the whole way through for the first (even, let’s be honest, the third) time. It’s only then that you can really look back and see where pieces need to be moved or added to pull the picture into place. I’m pretty sure Eliot was confirming his pantser status when he came up with that whole thing about the end being where we start from. 

It’s all a matter of time

Sometimes the pieces are all technically in the right place – it’s the gaps between them that are causing the problem. Setting those key beats too far apart can see you lose momentum, but not having enough quiet space in between can mean you don’t allow yourself room for the characters to develop and breathe before the plot carries them on. 

Choosing the time frame covered by your novel is not a simple matter of saying ‘It starts on this date and ends on this one’ but also of deciding how much of that you want to set down on the page. Will you be relating events in as close to real time as you can, letting us live every moment (brave, but it can work!)? Or are we joining our characters at certain important days or weeks within a longer time period, perhaps even to the extent that that spacing and placement of those moments informs the novel’s structure (as in One Day or The Time Traveller’s Wife)? If you’re struggling to see why your plot is lagging or bunching up, think carefully about the time period you’ve chosen – was there a specific reason you wanted to set it over the course of an hour or a week or a summer or a decade? Do you still need to? And would there be anything to gain from switching up the chronology – would that exciting event that happens near the end actually make a brilliant prologue, the perfect starting place to then work our way back to?

The plot itself is all good – but it needs a better agent

Even if you feel you’ve got the unfolding of your story exactly right – things in the right order, the pieces balanced and leading logically to one another – your plot might still feel lacking. In that case, it could be worth considering going back and looking at the way in which you’re setting out this story – might it be better told with two narrators, two different chains of events (or the same chain divided between them to show us conflicting versions)? Or is there another time strand to include which might shed light on or recast your current plot in a different and more interesting way? Sometimes shifting perspective rather than rearranging the elements of your story itself can pull things more tightly into place, or open up a path between your beginning and end that you hadn’t realised was there. And somehow, those always seem to turn out to be the perfect ones.

Darren O’Sullivan: The Three Steps of a First Draft

As an author who is lucky enough to do the odd panel, I get asked a lot of questions about how I got started. I completely understand why. Only four years ago I was a student at the Faber Academy, and Colette McBeth was answering the exact same question (in fact, I may have been the person to ask it). I was mesmerised by what she said, fascinated by her journey, and as I sat in the audience, listening to how she believed a first draft shouldn’t be perfect, I let myself dream of the day I would have my own story to tell.

Now I’m working on my sixth novel after being picked up by HQ two years ago.

The journey from then to now hasn’t been plain sailing: there have been a lot of rejections, tons of despair, and with my debut, Our Little Secret, I had to cut the best part of 70,000 words to rework it, even after an initial cull and rewrite. I literally have twice as many binned words as in the actual finished novel! It may sound pretty traumatic to have to throw away so much work, but in fact it’s been a blessing in disguise – and the most important learning curve for my writing process.

Now, when I begin a first draft, I go through three stages.

1: Ask What if?

Before I write a single word, I work on who the story is about and I get to know them. After a week or so, I have a good idea of who the character at the heart of the book is – but at that point I don’t think about the hook or the twist or even what’s going to happen (or what has happened) to them. Instead I ask, What if?  I throw situations at my characters; I drop them at the deep end of that situation and see how they react. A lot of the time the character begins to do things and say things I wouldn’t have considered.

This is, for me, one of the most important aspects of creating a story. Adding those immeasurably valuable two words to my thought process removed the crushing doubt and allowed me to have fun (well, as much fun as a person can have after cutting 70,000 words of course). In the What if lives endless possibility, unlimited creation, a universe of avenues to explore and new situations to develop. And it removed my super ego – because how can you be definitively right in a world with so much possibility?

And from that initial What if, I begin to write, building the scene and the world the character is in, until I hit a dead end. Then another What if usually kicks the story along. In my fourth book, Dark Corners, which is coming out in April 2020, I knew before I began to write that Neve Chambers had a secret she had been holding onto for over twenty years. But I didn’t know what it was. I knew she had moved away from where she grew up and lived in London, but I didn’t know why. I knew she had a challenging relationship with her father. But I didn’t know what had caused it. Then I asked the question. What if she had to go back to the village she fled when she was younger? What would happen? What if she hadn’t been back since the day she left, and what if the place she fled was so small, so wrapped up in its past, it hadn’t forgotten how she’d abandoned them in their time of need?

Once I had asked these questions, I wrote them down where I could see them, so I could reference them whenever I was building a scene.

2: Get it on the page

After the What if, the second part of my process is about getting the story down. I try to have an idea where I want to go, a few notes made in my journal, but it’s not essential. What is essential is to get it down on paper. I write breathlessly and my first drafts are scrappy. But that’s okay (thanks, Colette). Character motivations aren’t always clear, the plot will have holes everywhere. But at the start this doesn’t matter.

I aim to write the first draft in ten weeks. Some days I get to write from 9am until 3pm. Some days I have to write a bit in the morning, and then again once my little one is in bed for the night. But ten weeks is the target – it’s quite quick, I’m aware, but if you break that down, it’s just 1500 words a day, six days a week. All that matters is getting it down, getting it out of my head and asking the thousand What ifs along the way.

I lay out what I have on my office wall, using post-it notes to colour code the POV; plot points, as they are; and the questions I have yet to find the answer for. Then, the real work begins as I try to turn the messy, issue-riddled story into something a reader might enjoy. What I don’t do in this first draft process is get in my own way. I don’t stop when doubt tells me it’s shit. I don’t realise the plot is sticky and try to fix too soon. I focus on the only thing I can control at this point, which is the act of being at my laptop, putting down the words. Sure, a lot of the words won’t be the right ones but don’t they say, don’t get it right, just get it written?

3: Begin again, out loud

I often find it’s only once the first draft is done that I truly understand what I’m trying to say. For example, in my third book, Closer Than You Think, it wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I understood quite how close the killer was to the protagonist at all times. This detail wasn’t in my plan, and I didn’t know it was happening until the conclusion was wrapped up. Knowing this altered how I understood the story I was trying to tell, and consequently became a hugely powerful thread within the book.

So once the first draft is down, I begin again. I read the story out loud, a red pen in one hand, a green in the other. The red cuts the repetition and pointless words, the green is used to find the places where I can answer the questions I’ve posed for myself and add new details I can only see when I hear it spoken.

And once I’ve completed my three phases, I hand it in, to begin again with my What ifs once my editor has made their comments.

But there’s also the fourth – and most important – step.

4: Protect the love of writing

Writing a book, as we all know, is bloody hard. It’s a sometimes insurmountable summit and although I’ve condensed my process to a three step guide, there are dozens of side steps and backward steps. There is research and waking up in the middle of the night with ‘incredible’ ideas that turn out to make no sense once morning comes. There are sales figures and reviews and deadlines. It’s hard. But I make it a daily practice to remember my time before I was a published author, when I was sat at the Faber Academy, scribbling down every piece of information my tutor and other authors shared. I make it a daily practice to remember the reason I write. I didn’t want a six figure advance (in the beginning, I didn’t even know authors could get six figure advances!). All I wanted was to tell a story, finish it, and feel empowered to try and tell another. When no-one cared about my books, when I had no deadline, no reviews, no sales figures, I wrote because I loved it, and I protect that feeling every single day. And that, for me is the most important part of writing a book. I remind myself how much I adore writing. And that way, the 90,000 new words I need to produce in a new world I have dreamt up doesn’t seem so hard a mountain to climb.

 

Darren O’Sullivan is the author of three bestselling novels: Our Little Secret, Close Your Eyes and Closer Than You Think. His fourth novel, Dark Corners, will be published next April. He’s represented by the Madeleine Milburn Agency. Darren is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or visit his website

Applying for Writing A Novel? Here’s how to stand out from the crowd

As the end of the year approaches, we’re looking forward to January and the new term, when we’ll be welcoming the next set of students onto our six month Writing A Novel course. The course is now in its tenth year, having launched the careers of over a hundred authors, and we’re really proud of it. As applications start to come in, we asked our tutors to tell us what it is they’re hoping to see when they sit down to read through them – and what makes them want to offer someone a place in their class.

Our tutors on the daytime version of the course, Sabrina Broadbent and Shelley Weiner, are looking for originality and determination. Sabrina told us:

In the writing sample, I’m on the lookout for latent signs of that rare thing ‘an original voice’, which is hard to define yet unmistakeable when you read it. It often emerges out of risk, nonconformity and difference. Unusual dialogue is a good sign. Irreverence and wit also. With the letter, I’m usually thinking of what a good writing group needs – insight, humility, self awareness, commitment, a range of viewpoints and experiences.

Shelley agreed that the letter tells her a lot about how prepared an applicant might be for the challenges of the course:

The prose extract is important but, more than a piece of finely honed fiction, I look for freshness, a sense of urgency, an eye for the quirks and oddities in life. The letter should be articulate and coherent, expressing the potential student’s passion, realism and determination: passion for the crazy endeavour of long-form fiction, realism about the challenges involved, and determination to see it through.

 

Our tutors for the evening version of the course, Richard Kelly, Sarah May and Richard Skinner, are also looking for promise in both a potential student’s writing and their ability to contribute to the group. Richard Kelly told us:

What I love to find in an application is a sharp and original idea, some well-made sentences, and an overall sense of the writer’s readiness to share and exchange – which is the making of a great class.

 

Sarah May doesn’t expect an applicant to come with their novel fully-formed – it’s the raw material which matters most:

What am I looking for? Passion and potential in the writing sample. These outweigh polish and perfection every time. The covering letter needs to demonstrate commitment and an ability to work collaboratively.

 

 

And Richard Skinner, who created the course in 2009, agreed that polish isn’t everything – talent always shines through.

Of course we’re looking for good writing but, as long as a less polished piece has that certain something in it, that thing we’re all looking for but can’t name, then we’re interested.

 

 

Applications close for this iteration of the course on 31 December 2019. If you’re thinking about applying and want to know more, you can always drop us a line at academy@faber.co.uk or on 0207 927 3868.

Four reasons your POV isn’t working

It’s one of the first decisions you need to make when starting a novel (or a short story or screenplay or pretty much all writing in fact): who is telling this story, and how are they choosing to do so?

This week at Bloomsbury House, our Writing A Novel students have been learning about point of view. First person, second or third; past or present or a combination thereof – finding the perfect voice can do wonders for your narrative.

But if something doesn’t feel right as you start putting the words down on the page, here are some of the reasons your chosen POV might not be working for you.

Your first person narrator doesn’t know enough… Or they know too much

Writing in the first person can be a real gift – done well, it can quickly bring your reader close, make your action feel more immediate. But it can prove tricky in terms of plot because we can only know what your narrator knows; while this can add intrigue and layers to the reading experience, you may also find yourself constantly having to invent ways for them to overhear or see things that move the story along.

At the opposite end of the scale, a first person narrator can sometimes know too much for your plot to feel believable. If your main character is withholding information from the reader that will provide a twist at the end, think carefully about the mechanics of this. Of course deliberate misdirection can work brilliantly (do we even need to mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd here?), but this suggests an interaction, a dialogue between narrator and reader. You can do this by playing with form – the diary sections of Gone Girl are another oft-used example – but if your novel features a more traditional first person narrative then there should be a good reason that a relevant fact doesn’t surface in their inner monologue until the point at which it serves you best. It can feel like a cheat, for example, if your main character spends an entire novel watching a murder investigation and only acknowledges to themselves right at the end that they’ve held a vital clue all along.

Your third person narrative is keeping you at arm’s length

A third person narrative can give you a lot of freedom. If you choose an omniscient narrator you can decide to move from character to character, even to impart information that none of them have; whilst even a close third person narrative can offer a cooler, more balanced perspective than being inside that character’s head. But it can also be limiting in certain stories.

Sometimes we need to have a closeness to our protagonist(s) in order to fully experience the things that are happening to them, and in the third person, you may find yourself resorting to that much-feared writing sin of telling your reader what your character is feeling and thinking. Consider this: Brian thought that Miranda was an idiot, especially since that time she had broken his favourite mug in the kitchen on the same day that he had stepped in a puddle on the way to work. He thought about what an awful day that had been. It becomes laborious to read; distancing for a reader. Instead, novelists from Jane Austen to Stephen King have made excellent use of free indirect style to bring their narrative to life. Miranda was an idiot. What about that time she had broken his favourite mug? That had been an awful day; his trousers still wet from the puddle he had stepped in on the way to work. The content is essentially the same and yet it subtly positions us, the reader, in a different way.

Your past tense is… not so tense

While writing in the past tense offers you a great level of control as a writer, if you’re also using the first person, it can make it harder to add suspense. Because how to make us wonder if things will turn out alright when the narrator is patently here to tell the tale? The third person can offer better grounds for toying with your reader here, giving you all the power. But it can work in the first person too – if you have that relationship between narrator and reader mentioned above. Is your narrator holding back what happened from us? Or do we know from the outset where they are now, and the drive of the narrative is therefore in finding out how that came to be?

Something to consider with any story is the question: why should we care? Why will we read on? Is it to watch events unfold, or to simply enjoy being in the company of an irresistible narrator? Is it because we can’t stop, because we need to know what happens next? Knowing this when you set out will help you work out at an early stage whether the POV you have chosen is going to help you achieve that goal.

The voice you’re using is great – but it doesn’t belong to the character you’re writing

Sometimes everything can be great in the thing you’re writing – you love the prose, you can tell the pace is there, exposition is no problem – but somehow it just still feels… wrong. If you’re writing in the first person, take a step back and consider your narrator. Think about who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through. Is the voice you’ve given them built up from that? Does everything that gives it depth – their vocabulary, their speech patterns, the unique way they think about and look at the world – come from it? If the answer is no – if the voice came first and their story is something you’re figuring out along the way, or if your plot has shifted and changed the longer you’ve been working on it, it could be time to revisit who this narrator is. Character questionnaires and other short exercises can be a great way to do this; on Writing A Novel, we often recommend students attempt writing a letter to themselves, the author, from their protagonists. Get to know your character again and you may find your POV slipping back into place.

#QUICKFIC 18/11/2019: The Winner

Runner Up: Thom Willis

Time Alone

Imitation snow on the window, light blazed, bath filled with thick bubbled. Almost time. Later, water clouded and slick with scented oils, the cold invades once more. Time passed, the time is past. The steam misting the cold window now water again, soaking into the snow-foam.

Cold tiles. Feet bare, tread high and find the bath cold, water stale and still. She steps in, lies back. The water moves slows, closes clammily over her skin. Imitation snow on the window spreads milky patches across the sill. The lights are dim, the blue night grey in the white bathroom.

It is a ritual, performed for no one and no purpose. The oil on the surface is flammable and its blue flame dances will o’the wisp in the room. Corpse-lights. Here, Dracula’s coachman sets a rock to dig in the morning. She extends a leg, and allows all to slip greasily back into the water. She speaks, addressing the room. She incants.

The light will soon be on the other side of the window. True snow is promised in the mellow bulge of the clouds, banking over the distant hills. She takes the water in a small bottle, caps it. Curses, blessings, simple comforts for superstitious minds. She trusts its power. Walks, feet flat to the frigid floor, back out the way she came. Time over.

Runner Up: Charlotte Risdale

How has it come to this? It’s Friday night, I’m in my twenties (just), and look at me. These are meant to be some of the best years of my life. All I had wanted was to sit back in a hot bath with a cold gin and read my book. Instead, I’m here in a lukewarm bath with no gin, trying to get an awkward patch of hair on my ankle without taking off half my skin all for a date I don’t really want to go on with my sister’s friend, Steve. Not that there’s anything wrong with Steve – I’m sure he’s a lovely guy. It’s just hard to mentally prepare yourself for a date you’ve been railroaded into by your mother who thinks it’s about time to start thinking about settling down. Obviously this is a ridiculously antiquated idea, and normally I would call her out on things like this, but sometimes it helps to placate her. Like, for example, when she is the woman helping you pay rent because your long-term boyfriend suddenly announced he had decided he was going to back-pack around Asia without you and left you to pay the entire rent for your apartment in Islington which you definitely could not afford but was ‘an investment in our future’ (his words, not mine). So here I am, in 2019, crumpled up in the bath, getting ready for a date my mother arranged for me. God, I need a gin.

Winner: Jessica Joy

Peach

I’m ten again. I hate this bathroom. It’s still as cold and soapy as it was back then. I prefer a shower but the shower never worked. A quarter-filled with tepid water, a bath forces you to hug cold knees or to contemplate your stomach and thighs. A bath coerces you to lie in your own dirt. And guilt. I avoid baths, usually.

My parent’s bathroom hasn’t changed one iota, since the Eighties. Cheap white suite. Cheap peach-coloured tiles. More ‘budget rental’ than ‘hotel boutique’.

Peach. I can’t stand peaches. They make my tongue itch. I was a peach once. Well, more than once. That’s what Uncle Mo called me, his ‘Little Peach.’

The track marks on my arm look like teeth marks. “Just one small bite of my Little Peach.”

I can hear the murmur of voices downstairs in the sitting room. They think I don’t know what’s going on. The invitation was to Sunday lunch, with the family. But it’s another Intervention.

I pull out the plug and lie back hoping the water will whisk me down the drain with all the scum and dead skin and hairs. I shiver in the empty bath. My shoulders squeak against the base.

There is a tap, tap, tap on the bathroom door. I freeze. But it’s Mum’s voice that whispers through the gap, “Are you coming down now?”

Maybe this time I’ll have the courage to tell them the truth. Maybe this time I’ll show them the real scars. 


Thank you all for some lovely interpretations for what even I deemed  ‘a weird prompt’ everyone! Biggest of congratulations to Thom, Charlotte and Jessica. Charlotte, if your piece has a name let me know and I’ll add it in.

Look out for a #QUICKFIC announcement coming soon. Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

 

#QUICKFIC 18/10/2019

Good morning sunshine! The weather has finally turned, I’m snug as a bug in a rug in a fluffy jumper and the pile of leaves outside my house made a delicious crunchy noise when I jumped in them. As we all know the only thing better than a crunchy leaf pile is a good old round of #QUICKFIC, Faber Academy’s Flash Fiction competition.

I know we’ve had a few new joiners, so if you don’t know what this oddity is, read the rules below. If you know what you’re about, scroll just a little further down to the prompt way below and get cracking!

  • At the end of this blog post you’ll see a prompt.
  • From that prompt, I’d like you to write a piece of flash fiction, 250 words or less (not including the title, because I’m nice,)
  • Once you’re happy with your piece, copy and paste it into the body of an email, including your title and a word count.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 18/10/2019.
  • Send that email over to the team at academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm GMT on the Friday afternoon. And not a moment later!

From 2:50 to 3:30 pm it’s waiting time until the winner and runner ups are revealed on the blog.

This week’s winner can claim a beautiful pile of non-fiction wonders. We’ve got Can You Solve My Problems? by Alex Bellos, Mr Lear by Jenny Uglow and The House Party by Adrian Tinniswood as this weeks prize:

(Typewriter and beautiful autumn weather not included)

Then, as ever, it is my duty and privileged to reveal the prompt!

Drum roll please…

 

 

 

 

 

Annnnnd go.

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.

#QUICKFIC 11/10/2019: The Winner

 

Runner Up: Sarah Nash

Cherry Tomatoes

Congratulations!Happy Anniversary!Surprise!

Dust settles over the garden like a cobweb blanket, muffling the sounds of evening.

Are you hiding, you cheeky pair?

At your age?

Fifty years. What an achievement.

A mouse scrabbles, a toad rumbles, a rat scratches.

Bit of a let down.

I wanted to pop the champagne.

They’ve only got beer. Honestly!

Silent petals drop from the flowers with the passing of years.

Perhaps they’ve gone for a walk.

They haven’t even eaten yet.

It’ll all go soggy.

Fireflies light the paths and the lamp remains unlit.

Cherry tomatoes are one of Mum’s favourites.

Last taste of summer, she always says.

Dad’s not so keen, though.

The leaves on the plate wither and fade in the gathering gloom.

It’s a bit late to go for a walk.

I don’t like the idea of them out in the dark.

Do you think they’ve taken a torch with them?

There are rocks along the way but they gaze ahead and do not falter.

Perhaps she told him before they sat down.

He won’t be able to cope without her.

We’ll just have to help him between us.

The path is long and winding but they have always walked it together.

What shall we do?

What can we do?

What do they want us to do?

On and on they stroll, hand in hand, fingers entwined, steps in tune.

On and on, into the white light and the forever.

Runner Up: Sam Heague 

The Broken Kingdom

She always was funny, even right up until the end. I mean, who else plays dead in a hospice? F*ck sake, Kimmy! My face breaks into half a smile. God I miss her. Why can’t you still be playing dead now?

Like always, I cooked this meal for two with one eye looking out over the garden. That was her space you see. I built this house with my bare hands, as they say, but she reimagined the garden with hers. A whole kingdom built together (queendom if you asked her), over a lifetime. Sometimes I still expect to see her out there. Sometimes I even think I do, daft old sod.

“Are we ’avin’ a party tonight?” she used to say, grin on her face, inspecting the feeding-of-the-five-thousand sized meals I’d prepared for dinner.

“Our kids have all left home now, y’know?”

I can still almost hear her say it now…

I know, Kimmy. I know.

I stoop and trim two of the freshest roses from the bush and inhale them deeply, before placing them in a glass. So colourful, so vibrant, so alive, I think. It was only three weeks ago today that I scattered her ashes over this garden of ours. God I miss her. The roses keep me going, just about: a kingdom broken, but not totally.

Winner: Casey Bottono

Writers Retreat

Like me, late summer fights to hang on. Just sometimes, it is easier to escape into a world of your own making. That’s why I didn’t notice him at first, standing there anxious not to break the dream.

In the world I’ve made, your body can’t betray you. In the physical world, no such luck. Harry clears his throat and weighs his words carefully.

“Do you want to come out in the garden with me, love?”

He took his grief out on the earth itself, while I escaped into my stories. Life slowed to a crawl, and I shut every door I could.

Early September days I stumble, but he’s trying. Eyeing cold coffee in a stained cup, I move towards the kitchen. The cup goes in the sink, he slips his hand in mine.

“Close your eyes, sweetheart.” Surprises frighten me, and my body braces.

We embark on an incredible journey, or so it seems. After the longest time, he releases my hand for just a second.

“Take a seat.”

While I’ve been locked in my stories, he’s made a splendid dinner, just for the two of us.
As though for the first time, I see the garden verdant and determined. Maybe I can blossom too.

Harry fills my glass and his own, then raises it aloft.

“To Rory, our little lion heart…and to life.”

I echo his toast, and something loosens. Like the leaves changing colour on the trees, Autumn is a chance to start again.


What a welcome back! Contemplative and moody, just like the weather. Congratulations to Sarah, Sam and Casey. Many thanks to everyone that submitted.

May your weekends be dry(ish) and cosy. See you soon!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 11/10/2019

Welcome home, flash fiction fans! The Academy’s new term is in full swing (hi to all the new students) and so it’s time to kick #QUICKFIC back into gear too.

Thanks to the long break I’m going to whip you through a quick rules refresher before we get to the good stuff. If you remember every detail of how to play, scroll on down. If you don’t, or you’re completely new, here is how #QUICKFIC works:

  1. At the bottom of this blog post and on Twitter on Friday at 9:50 am you’ll see a ‘prompt.’ Usually these are pictures, but sometimes I throw a curve ball. Keeps you on your toes.
  2. After gazing at the prompt for a while I’d like you to write a short story of 250 words or less inspired by what you see.
  3. Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm GMT that Friday afternoon.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 11/10/2019.

Once 2:50 pm hits I read through all the pieces and pick the runners up and winner both on this blog and on Twitter. 

Winners get not only my undying admiration but also an actual, physical prize in the form of books! This week you stand a chance of winning In the Fold and The Temporary, both by Rachel Cusk, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera and What Happened? by Hanif Kureishi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And all you have to have to do to get these in your possession is write me a wonderful little tale based on this beautiful scene…

 

Get writing!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.

#QUICKFIC 30/08/2019: The Winner

Runner Up: Grace Coleman

Unit 6, 44 Lancaster Way

The rent was cheap and the location was great. A dodgy district once, now micro-breweries and cafes. Need to snap it up, quick, quick, the estate agent had said. Feeling generous, delirious, he had laughed, a little too hard. The paperwork looked in order, but there was a smell, like rusty tin, that didn’t fit with the piles of coffee-speckled papers in the agent’s office. Mike didn’t question. He was an artist, not a business man or detective. He found beauty in the dashes and dots – breathed life into text. Money transferred, keys handed over, the next stage of Phoenix Web Solutions set in motion. Mike approached 44 Lancaster Way, paint coming away at the edges like orange peel. There were dots on the cement steps inside. He bent to look, reaching out a finger. A dog barked. He walked up, tilting his head to the heavens, a maraca-heart in his chest. The second key opened the second door. The only light inside came from a box window, head height, letting grey slip into the room. A chair faced it, surrounded by inch-long cuts of string. Mike ignored the sweet smell, unpleasant in the stained walls. The source of the noise appeared, white fur now brown. A tail wagged, confirming the transfer of ownership. Why dwell on the past? DIY wasn’t Mike’s speciality, but he was an artist. He traded keyboard for paintbrush. White. White. White. Folding away secrets like the closing of a book under each coat. 

Runner Up: Nathalie Kernot

New Ghosts

His eyes begin to hurt when it gets dark. When he looks up the squares of neat blue sky in the window, segments of an easy jigsaw, have turned muddy with the departing light. He turns from the wall, and meets the eyes of a white ghost.

The ladder creaks as he clenches his hands, hissing a gasp. One heartbeat a hard throb in his chest. In the space before the next, the figure’s pale features ripple and settle, his own eyes staring back at him. Wide and black as holes in the twilight. His reflection’s cheeks pockmarked by the dust on the mirror. His mouth open.

He breathes, made strange by the mirror, the light, little finger-bruises of paint on his cheeks. This gutted room, where he has never spent much time, his visits to his father usually confined to the lounge.

The sheet on the floor stirs. A face beneath it, his father’s or his own, like a struggling lamb in caul. Another movement, and, small in the gaping door-mouth, a dog.

White, matching the paint. Its eyes big gold things, flattened in the sideways light from the street.

“Hello,” he says. Thinks about crouching, offering his hand, finding its owner. Instead, holds still.

It makes a curious noise in its throat, but doesn’t approach. He bends, slowly, to retrieve the fallen paintbrush.

He raises it again to the wall and the dog turns to leave, the sound of its claws on the ground like a clock, ticking. 

Winner: Fran Egan

The Card In The Window

It was a weekend job. I got the call on Friday afternoon, snuffling round the park on Bury Street, picking up desiccated dog mess and nodding to the resident purple-rinsed perambulators. A usual ‘refresh’, couple of coats of magnolia and I’ll be done. I always take Pookie with me – there’s usually no one around to mutter about health and safety. Just me, the roller, a large a tin of paint and paddy-paws crumpled in the corner, snoring with a gentle purr.

It smelt different straightaway. A tinge of something rotting, a saltiness in the air-conditioned space. Donkey jacket off, overalls on, Pookie unusually alert, I started. I noticed a pinhead of red winking at me from the corner. One quick roll and it was gone. Moving round the room I spotted several more. A scattering of scarlet seeds blooming on the muddy walls. What was this place? There was a churning and a swilling from the overhead pipe, a slurry of waste desperate to escape.

Pookie was licking, accompanied by a whine of discovery. Liquid was pooling under one vent, a puddle shaped like China marching across the floor. Red, unrelenting and viscous. I smothered and mopped, chucked the damson-stained dirties in the over-sized bin. It dried up. I hurried up. My back to the self-closing door, I didn’t see it come in. I turned to see Pookie scamper out the door. As I stepped forward, the blade sparkled against the newly-painted door jamb.

Card read: DECORATOR NEEDED. WEEKEND WORK.


I have missed your tendency to, as a group, see a perfectly benign image (like, say, a sweet fluffy dog and pristine white walls) and think “hmm, yeah, menace and death in that one.” Never change! Congratulations to all who submitted this week and a huge round of applause for Grace, Nathalie and Fran.

Goodbye for now!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 30/08/2019

Hello hello and welcome to the last days of summer. Faber Academy has a shiny new home and #QUICKFIC, our Flash Fiction competition, has shiny new bookshelves I can take photos on! It’s all very exciting.

Even more exciting (to me, personally) is the pieces that you’re going to produce. Alumni of #QUICKFIC, skip on down to the prompt at the bottom of the page. Newcomers, read on for the rules, regulations and requirements for this particular game:

  • You’re going to see a prompt on Friday morning at 9:50 am. Prompts can be anything, including but not limited to: Playlists, Wikipedia Articles, Quotes From Authors/Books/Taylor Swift Songs Because The New Album Is Great, Pictures and anything else I can come up with, so be prepared!
  • You then write a a short story of 250 words or less inspired by that prompt.
  • Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50pm on the Friday afternoon.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 30/08/2019.
  • Once 3:30 pm hits, whip on over to this here blog or Twitter for the winners to be revealed.

Your winning author does, of course, receive a prize. This week we’ve got Louise Doughty’s brilliant new novel Platform Seven and, ahead of the release of her new novel Girl next week, Edna O’Brien’s August is a Wicked Month

 

On with the show! Here’s your prompt:

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.