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.

 

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