Ask Academy with Nikesh Shukla

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

In the last of the series, we chatted to Nikesh Shukla about persistence, pandemics and Zack Morris:

FA: Welcome, Nikesh! Our first question is an interesting one – I know a couple of writers who are struggling with something similar at the moment: ‘I’m writing (or I was!) a novel about a pandemic – will anyone want to read it now?’

NS: Is it good? If it’s good, write what you want? I suppose writing about this specific pandemic we’re in is a bit hard. It’s all still unfolding. I still feel like we’re in the first five minutes of a pandemic film. But the general rule is… make it good! Make sure the characters are compelling and the writing is excellent and all the rest of it. I mean, how many people watched Contagion and re/read Station Eleven Mar–May this year?

FA: *raises hand*

NS: I didn’t watch Contagion but I did re-read the opening of Station Eleven. What an incredible book. I can’t wait for the HBO miniseries.

FA: Yes! I’m so excited for it… Covid is definitely not ruining that for me!

NS: Hiro Murai directing and Himesh Patel starring, it can’t fail.

FA: But yes, I definitely still have that first-five-minutes feeling. It’s also tough for writers working on anything contemporary, isn’t it? Do you start getting your characters talking about covid, social distancing etc – or do you move the whole novel back to 2018/19… Has it affected your fiction so far?

NS: Yeah it’s a good question. I don’t know the right answer to it, I’m afraid. That’s why I went with the whole… make it good, approach. Cos if it’s good, you can do what you want? I don’t know how to write fiction set now right now. Mostly because we’re still in it. I feel like I need time and space to reflect and see the change and how it impacts our behaviours. I was writing a novel at the start of lockdown and basically set it in 2019 because it was about summer. And this summer was not summer.

FA: I think that’s the perfect approach. Some people will be able to lean in to capturing this moment and make something absolutely great whereas it’s not going to excite/interest some writers, is it. I’ll happily read covid novels when they start appearing… But am also looking forward to some fictional versions of 2020 where it never happened at all.

NS: Yes, here for alternative 2020 timeslip novels. I remember reading a proof of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s excellent debut, Open Water, this summer, and it’s a brilliant exploration of love. There are two or three scenes that take place in a club: a sweaty, dark, beautiful, throbbing club, filled with bodies and music and I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to be reading. I don’t want to read about facemasks and panic-buying toilet paper. I want to read about the things that bring us together.’ That book is so good. It’s out in February. 

FA: YES. So much this. That sounds brilliant.

*disappears briefly to pre-order it…*

Okay, let’s move on to our second question: ‘I’ve had the dreaded feedback that my main character isn’t likeable… does it actually matter? And if it does, how do I fix it?!’

NS: Do characters need to be likeable? I don’t know many writers who think they should be. I think Chuck Wendig said, characters don’t need to be likeable. They need to be liveable.

For me, a good complex interesting character is one who is neither the shiny goodie super likeable two-shoes or the out and out baddie. Zack Morris in Saved By The Bell did some shady stuff to get what he wanted, and he was the hero. Was he always likeable? I rewatched The Prestige last night and neither Borden or Angiers are likeable. They are both monsters ruled by their egos. But what it compels them to do, how they act, how they strive for what they want and how they ‘get their hands dirty’ is interesting and compelling. The feedback I hate more than likeability is ‘relatability’. When someone says they didn’t relate to a character as part of their feedback, I always find it useless. Relatable to who? Who decides what relatability is? Or likeability for that matter. A good character should be somewhere between likeable and unlikeable and be complex enough to shift between those two binaries. And in surprising ways.

Also, this is a good shout – from @Fergie_Kate: ‘An agent explained to me that a character absolutely doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting enough in some way that a reader wants to spend time with them and learn more about them. That really helped me when thinking about how to re-write a character that wasn’t quite working and everyone was just saying, “I hate him”.’

FA: Yes that’s a really great way of thinking about it, isn’t it – there are characters I’ve loved spending the course of a novel with when I definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with them in real life.

NS: Yeah, ‘people I’d go for a socially distanced pint and substantial meal in tier 2 with’ does not make for compelling characters.

FA: That does sound quite soothing though… maybe this is the novel I actually need to read right now?!

NS: What’s your favourite pub/cafe/restaurant scene in a novel?

FA: Ooh great question… Sweetbitter springs to mind. There are some good ones in Such A Fun Age too. I need to think more about my all time favourite! Have you got one?

NS: Currently, Open Water… I loved that book. I’ve thought about it deeply for months.

FA: I’m really excited to read it!

Okay, next one: ‘This might sound like a stupid question, but how do you know when an idea is a novel? I’ve written short stories before and I have an idea that I’d like to write something longer with – but I don’t really know where to start!’

NS: I wish I knew. I have started and stopped novels that should have been short stories. I have written short stories I wish could have been longer. For me, it’s quite unknowable and the journey of discovery is part of the process. I guess, I don’t start out with my ‘this is my novel’ cap on. I write and I think and I try to find ways to get to know the characters and the more I obsess over them and the more they interrupt my thoughts, the more I know how much time I want to spend with them.

FA: I love that. Moving speedily on to one last question before our time’s up: ‘My novel has been turned down by several agents. I do believe in it but my confidence has taken a knock and I’m not sure what to do. How do you know when to keep going and when it’s time to move on to a new idea?’

NS: Time is your friend. Take a step back. Don’t work on it. Maybe work on a short story or an essay. Read some stuff, watch some stuff. Come back to it. Read it through. If you can print it out or put it on a tablet, read it through as a book. Sit with it after you’ve finished. Write yourself a letter: what is good about it, what’s working, what’s sacred, and what needs to be worked on. Do that edit. You’ll be amazed how time allows us to see the things we’ve still to do. Editing takes many attempts, many passes. And that’s ok. You spent ages writing the first draft. Don’t try and get it off your desk too quickly. Take the time to ensure you’ve done everything you need to!

FA: This is such wonderful advice, thank you. I love that letter idea. I’m going to try that myself!

Nikesh Shukla is an novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of Coconut Unlimited (shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award), Meatspace and the critically acclaimed The One Who Wrote Destiny. Nikesh is a contributing editor to the Observer Magazine and was previously their columnist. Nikesh is the editor of the bestselling essay collection, The Good Immigrant, which won the reader’s choice at the Books Are My Bag Awards. He co-edited The Good Immigrant USA with Chimene Suleyman. He is the author of two YA novels, Run, Riot and The Boxer. Nikesh was one of Time Magazine’s cultural leaders, Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Global Thinkers and The Bookseller’s 100 most influential people in publishing in 2016 and in 2017. He is the co-founder of the literary journal, The Good Journal and The Good Literary Agency. Nikesh is a fellow of the Royal Society Of Literature and a member of the Folio Academy.

Ask Academy with Richard T. Kelly

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

Read on for Richard T. Kelly’s advice on writing lyrical prose, writing within a three- or five-act structure and – most challenging of all – writing during a global pandemic.

FA: Hi, Richard! Thanks for joining us. Here’s our first question: ‘Would you have any advice on how to make one’s prose more lyrical? And by lyrical I mean the kind of language that arrests, that can take a simple thing and open it up, showing how differently we all experience the world. Sometimes the text comes out that way when I’m inspired, but I’m working on a novel and can’t afford to rely on inspiration alone. Do you have any tips on how to cultivate this in the rewriting/editing phase?’

RTK: Hello! This is a lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon – thanks for sending questions and for the chance to mull over these big considerations about writing. ‘Lyrical’, I guess, is writing so beautifully, and in such a fresh way, that the reader feels they see a thing in a new light, charged by imagination, not the same old words. This quality has to come from your powers of observation. It’s a matter of style, intensely personal, it can’t be impersonated. When I started writing fiction I was haunted at times by the notion I ought to be cramming more metaphors into my sentences. But these things arise naturally or they don’t. (Lean, minimal prose can be intensely metaphorical in what it draws a reader’s eye to, cf. Hemingway etc.)

You can train your powers of observation. Try studying physical things, capturing them in words with the care a still-life artist would take. Take ten tired-out similes – cold as ice, passion like fire – and try to write five new ones for each that you’ve never seen or heard before. But sometimes these sudden illuminations just hit you in the street, and that’s why writers should always carry a little old-fashioned notebook! In editing you can always revisit a chapter – a paragraph, a passage, a scene – and try to look around it anew, revisit it in your head and think about its perspective and its details. Then, as a visual artist would, you can ‘retouch’ certain elements for the reader’s attention.

FA: That’s a great image! A really helpful way to think about it.

RTK: I hope it’s helpful to the questioner – as you can see, this is an issue I have wrestled with!

FA: Okay, another biggie for you! I’m really interested in this one too, actually: ‘How important do you think it is to have a structure in mind as you write? I keep hearing about three act structures or five and I don’t really know how to apply that to my novel idea’

RTK: Oh yes… I’d expect any writers who have sat through my Academy classes would know my thoughts on this one well before I’ve typed ’em… In my opinion, every novelist has a stance or theory on pre-planning the work. Some swear by it and are obsessive blueprint-makers; others say they loathe it and it’s inimical to the whole point/pleasure of creativity. But everyone does at least a little of it. 

Basically, I think every artist sets certain ‘rules’ for themselves, even if only to break them in ways that can be revealing. There are zillions of advisors on how many ‘acts’ a story should have etc., from Aristotle to Robert McKee, and they’re freely available to consult. But I don’t think there’s one gospel. I do think everyone needs to find their novel’s proper shape, its proper internal movements. Weirdly, my novels always seem to be arranged in seven ‘parts.’ A novel is a big undertaking, and you want some sort of vulnerable map or model – like a sculptor first makes a maquette – to better discern where you’re heading. You want a provisional shape – because the final thing must be highly shapely, and it’s better you see that sooner. Your plan might be a spreadsheet or a beat-sheet or an x/y graph or a mind-map doodle. But just take a blank page and start roughing it out.

FA: That’s so interesting that you always end up with seven! And which side of the scale do you tend to fall on – obsessive blueprinter or casual doodler?

RTK: Well, seven is, of course, a number of great magical power… I feel like I’ve probably shown my slip on this point, so to speak, but I am a heavy-duty planner who nonetheless accepts that the plan is going to change, in interesting ways…

FA: I aspire to this! Frantic whiteboard scribbler and random Post-It thought collector over here, generally.

RTK: That’s planning, though, isn’t it? Just with a more non-linear slant. Probably a more fertile way forward than mine, too. Many writers could share with their readers some extraordinary pictures of exactly how they plan – many indeed have…

FA: That’s a kind way of putting it. And ooh! I feel a new series coming on, I would love to see some of those…

RTK: I have links and jpgs, some of my classes have seen ’em.

FA: Okay, a related one: ‘I need to edit my first draft (written during NaNoWriMo and pretty rough) but don’t know where to start. I know I have some big structural changes to make but it feels so daunting – how do you start taking apart such a large piece of work?’

RTK: First, well done on massing a first draft – they’re always going to be rough, but it means you’ve got a piece of marble to start chipping at. Re my previous on planning, I won’t fall back on the old joke of ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’ No more useful to you than to the tourist lost en route to Dublin in the joke… The great thing is that you say you know you need structural changes, so you clearly have a feel for what the structure, the shape, aspires to be but hasn’t yet attained. It is daunting, like most things in writing, but it must be done! 

First, make sure you’ve let the draft sit unattended as long as you can. To edit it, you need to be able to read it from a position of remove, and you can’t do that when it’s newly finished and all you’re seeing is thousands of decisions you just made, from sentence to sentence. But when you’re ready, print it out and sit down with a pen and a legal pad, and read it from start to end. By all means mark your pages for minor corrections of style; but on the legal pad, note at intervals whatever problems you’re observing about how your story is unfolding: are things missing, are things taking too long, or do they happen too fast? etc. But I expect certain issues about the shapeliness of what you’re doing will then become very clear to you. And you can start remedying them!

FA: Brilliant, thank you! Also, I have such admiration for anyone who manages to finish NaNoWriMo – at any time, but especially this year! Which actually leads me to our last question… ‘I’ve really struggled to concentrate on writing this year – do you have any tips or exercises to help me get back in the zone? I’m worried I’ll never finish this novel!’

RTK: We’re all with you on this one. Writing-wise, it’s been a great year for the world giving us material to write about, less so for the spirits we usually need to get the thing written… Still, I feel the best tip is to write every day, or at every reasonable opportunity you can carve out for yourself – whether or not you feel up to it/enthused by it. Really it’s about taking ‘the job’ seriously – trying to make a decent fist of a working day no matter what. Norman Mailer said that’s what makes a writer a professional: “the ability to work on a bad day”, which strengthens over time. He added beautifully that “the higher reaches of the mind are not enthralled by dull work”… but still you have to do “drudgery” to reach the peaks. 

I don’t steer by daily word-counts – one day you might produce thousands of words of stuff that looks utterly no good the next morning, on another you might craft no more than a sentence or two that nonetheless feels truly ideal, and really opens a window for you onto the book. So, just sit down, engage your mind and write some sentences. If you’re in the midst of a novel and the bit you’re stuck on is weighing you down – try to jump ahead to a later bit you maybe do feel like writing. If you’re mired in something rather tragic but it’s not coming out, consider a different passage of action: it could be romantic, comedic – it might be what wants to come out of you that day, and might lead you somewhere new, just because you made a decent fist of a working day.

FA: This is very reassuring, thank you! And hopeful too – because I think being led somewhere new certainly has all kinds of appeal at the end of 2020, doesn’t it!

RTK: Absolutely. There’s been a lot of talk about ‘pandemic novels’ but that doesn’t mean it’s where people’s imaginations will be headed, or that pandemic-set novels will best express the truth of how people have been feeling this year.

Richard T. Kelly is the author of the novels, Crusaders (2008), The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (2011) and The Knives (2016). His fourth novel, The Black Eden, is forthcoming from Faber. His non-fiction publications include Alan Clarke (1998), Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004), and Keegan & Dalglish (2017). Previously a senior editor for a number of London publishers, he has also written scripts for stage and screen, has edited two anthologies of P.G. Wodehouse, and is a contributing editor to Esquire and Critical Quarterly.

Ask Academy with Shelley Weiner

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

Shelley Weiner had some brilliant tips on world-building, pace, synopses – and what we mean by ‘Show, don’t tell’…

FA: Welcome, Shelley and thanks for joining us! Our first question is from one of our Instagram followers: ‘I find that world-building can sometimes come across as quite flat and uninteresting. How can I make this more engaging for a reader?’

SW: Great to be here – yes, world-building is often daunting. An invitation to ‘admire the view’ can be yawn inducing. Pretty, maybe, but dull. A bit like when setting in fiction is presented as a slab of adjective-laden text. Two things can bring setting to life:

  1. See it through the eyes of a character who is, let’s say, bent on revenge.
  2.  Move through it with that character, overcoming obstacles that might lurk in the undergrowth. This fits in with my central mission as a writer and tutor: to stay inside the story. Having created your world in its fullest detail, step into your character’s persona and operate from within. Where is your character heading? What do they want? What stops them? If you’re engaged then I guarantee that your reader will be too.

FA: I love that way of thinking about it, operating from within. That makes me think of the Hunger Games and how we experience that world very much through Katniss’s POV. Are there any other authors you think are particularly brilliant at this?

SW: I can’t think of any author I rate who doesn’t write from within the story – it’s the enchantment of fiction, being enticed into the heart of a narrative and experiencing a journey through a character’s heart and mind.

FA: Okay, our second question for you: ‘I’ve been told that my draft needs better pacing but I don’t really know how to start fixing that – do you have any advice?’

SW: Pace is what keeps the reader gripped, interested enough to turn the pages of a story. It’s the light and shade, a story’s peaks and troughs. The vital thing, from the outset, is for the reader to be invested in a character’s journey towards his or her goal. Too many side trips can slow the pace – so can pausing (yawn) to admire the scenery. In a piece of long fiction, we need variations in pace: slower, introspective moments and faster sections where external action is dominant. Too fast a pace can make the story hectic and superficial – too slow a pace can make it tedious. Variation is all.

FA: Okay, this is a good one for you – I think this is a phrase that gets thrown around loads without much thought about what it means and how to do it: ‘I keep hearing the advice ‘Show, don’t tell’ but I don’t understand what it really means: help!’

SW: I hear it too – a lot! And my heart tends to sink as it’s one of those easy aphorisms that few writers stop to analyse. It is as though there’s one way to narrate a story – by showing a character’s interaction with others and the environment. In truth, a piece of fiction is a combination of telling and showing: ‘telling’ is the essential element of summary (‘Two weeks later, on a grey December morning…’), while ‘showing’ is the zooming in to a scene that may follow. ‘Showing’ may be slower, more vivid, more emotionally engaging than ‘telling’, which transports us from scene to scene. A novel needs both ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ – for efficiency and texture and pace.

FA: Yes! This is so freeing to hear, I think – that telling isn’t some kind of writerly sin to be avoided at all costs. I suppose if someone is being given the ‘Show, don’t tell’ advice, it’s perhaps more a case of the balance between the two needing some adjustment?

SW: That’s correct. In a scene, when we’re ‘showing’, time slows and the emotional temperature rises. Summary (‘telling’) takes us forward – time speeds up, the temperature cools; it’s an efficient narrative tool. We definitely need to ‘show’ and to ‘tell’ but the balance is vital.

FA: This one’s something I think lots of writers struggle with, no matter where they are in their careers: ‘Do you have any tips for writing a good synopsis?’

SW: Writing a synopsis can be a daunting task – as my students know well. A good synopsis should convey to a reader (perhaps a literary agent or publisher) in a concise, appealing way, the essence of a novel and that you, its creator, are in command of your story. The first basic rule then is to know your story. Sounds simple – but, when challenged, many writers are stymied by having to distil their story to a one-sentence pitch. Beyond this it is important to keep the synopsis short and confined to the conflicts of your main character/s. Be meticulous about correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation – after all, you’re a writer. Don’t ask empty questions (it’s not a movie voice-over) and remember to use the present tense. Good luck with it – a strong, succinct synopsis is a challenging but worthwhile exercise.

Shelley Weiner is an acclaimed novelist, short-story writer and journalist who has, over the years, established a reputation as an inspirational creative writing tutor and nurturer of new talent. Shelley’s novels include the critically-acclaimed A Sisters’ Tale, The Last Honeymoon, The Joker and Arnost. Her latest novel is The Audacious Mendacity of Lily Green. As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Shelley has served at Middlesex University and the University of Westminster in London. She is currently employed as an Advisory Fellow.

Shelley has lectured in fiction writing on the Creative Writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, as well as for Birkbeck College, the Open University, the Taliesin Trust, the British Council in Israel, and Durham University Summer School. She is a mentor on the Gold Dust Mentoring Scheme and teaches for the Skyros Writers’ Lab.