Write Advice – author Eley Williams discusses sharing her work
Sharing your writing can be nerve-wracking, but peer critiquing is the first step in taking yourself seriously as a writer. Here, in the first of two sessions, author Eley Williams talks with our Getting Started: Beginners’ Fiction students about how she shares her work, story structure and her editing process.
Writing Short Fiction16 September 2019
- Receive guidance as you try writing short fiction for the first time
- Learn new techniques to add to your existing writing skills
- Explore the building blocks that make a good short story
Q – Hi Eley, and thanks for joining us. Shall we start off by asking about how you got into writing, and what your journey was like?
Eley Williams – Thank you for having me, and of course. Like many people I ‘had always written’ without necessarily thinking in terms of complete projects or believing it was anything other than for myself. These jottings and notes over time became drafts, became sketches, became linked sketches or recurring characters. I pursued a Creative Writing MA but still wasn’t sure whatI was writing, other than that they were short pieces.
After the MA a number of agents approached me because they had heard me at readings or in journals and liked my voice, tone, or characters, but only offered representation if I had a novel – which at the time I just couldn’t feel responsible for. Through open mic (some of you might have heard of Liars League, which is one currently running in London) my current publisher Influx sniffed me out, and I had a collection of short stories published in 2017.
This was all without an agent, but since then I have been lucky enough to be on prize shortlists (and beyond! *dramatic chord*) and gained representation. Currently I teach creative writing at RHUL and I’m attempting that novel.
Q – It sounds like you’re comfortable sharing your stories with a live audience – something that currently fills me with horror! Does that come naturally to you or did you have to get used to it?
EW – I found reading aloud (just in front of a mirror, classic hairbrush-for-microphone pose) really helped me in terms of editing: the use of breath and letting the teeth and tongue navigate sentences and the grammar I’d chosen for drafts helped me realise when things were over-ornate or extraneous.
Being on stage alongside other readers felt – much like PWA’s peer feedback model – like I could attach my writing to a community that wasn’t just one mediated through my admiration for work on the page. There’s real support there, and audiences out there for you.
However, I know it’s not for everyone, and by no means is a necessity. Some of my favourite fiction just wouldn’t work read aloud (put some full stops in, Mike McCormack, think of my lung capacity!). I’d recommend you go as an audience member to stand-up or literary sets and see how the authors or performers use pace and beats. Some of these may be replicable. And, if not, you might find a character there…
When a narrator develops repetitious phrasing or a metaphor has become too ornate – which is annoying, as these are usually the phrases that you’ve laboured on the hardest – that phrase ‘kill your darlings’ often reverberates through my head.
Q –Do you outline a structure before beginning a piece, or do you start writing and find your way through that?
EW – For short stories I do find that no matter how much I try to map out an arc, framework or plan plot-wise, I tend to veer so far from it that the final piece seems entirely different.
I think for me it starts with an image, or an unsettling feeling that then is provided context, or placed in a situation where there’s tension – in the positive, generative way that ‘unsettling’ can often be, however uncomfortable to parse. Tension, however small the stakes, equals momentum for a story.
Q – Once you’ve completed a piece, do you have a certain formula you follow for editing your own work? What do you find difficult at this point?
EW – Personally, my editing means a lot of trimming and strimming. When a narrator develops repetitious phrasing or a metaphor has become too ornate – which is annoying, as these are usually the phrases that you’ve laboured on the hardest – that phrase ‘kill your darlings’ often reverberates through my head.
My formula tends to be:
- finish the short story
- leave it for a week, while huffing and stamping my feet with horror/pride
- read it again, having not looked at it all that time
- hang head in shame at some parts, see the glaring plot holes or tenuous metaphors, but realise, ‘Yes. This paragraph is all I wanted to get across. This is something I’ve nailed, or written cleanly or incisively.’
I’m not sure if it’s a formula but rather a habit or pattern, but it seems to be how it turns out. You have to pull the chair up to the desk to start it, however, and that is daunting. But you can do it. You really can, and it will be worth it.
Once I’ve finished drafting a piece I return to a form of haphazard note taking, which doesn’t require the attention span or tenacity of finishing a short story, and see if anything there might be the basis of something new.
Q – When you take that break from writing a certain piece, do use that time to mull it over, or do you explore other ideas?
EW – I find that once I’ve set myself a task (‘Finish this short story about a…melon?’), my brain immediately has countless ideas and boundless energy for anything that is non-melon related. So, usually in that week I’ll jot all those down and see whether there are the seeds of another project that have germinated while I wasn’t looking and attend to those.
Basically, I return to a form of haphazard note taking, which doesn’t require the attention span or tenacity of finishing a short story, and see if anything there might be the basis of something new.
Q – Do you have any tips for crime writers?
EW – My hot tip would be – and bear with me! – to remember you’re writing a novel (or short story), not a script. Make each sentence of description resonate and count, and don’t resort to clichés that might creep in. We all do it – and clichés are really useful as performative, recognisable short-hand – but description that feels bogged down or overblown really distracts from tensions and action that are often the key to great crime/thriller stories.
I’d also say I’m very jealous of crime writing festivals. They seem ridiculously fun, and have the best festival names – NOIRwich in Norwich! I imagine they are a great place to pick up a sense of what audiences seek out, and what to concentrate on.
I’d also say that scenes in fiction that contain violence don’t have to be gratuitous. It can be searing, memorable, considered, philosophical – just make sure the bodies don’t rack up and the brutalisation of characters doesn’t occur unless the book truly requires its scrutiny. Often the most chilling violence occurs off-page, instilling dread in the reader.
Q – Eley, this has been fantastic. Thank you.
EW – Thank you!