Competition with Writers & Artists: Win a writing retreat

We’re delighted to be working with Writers & Artists, the annual Yearbook and website from Bloomsbury dedicated to helping writers learn and get published, to offer a free place at the Plotting Retreat in November, which takes place in a listed thatched cottage on the beautiful beach shown above.

You can get all of the competition details on the Writers & Artists website but in short, you need to write a story of up to 1,000 words set at the beach. Entry is free and the winner will get to join us at the Plotting Retreat where Richard Skinner, novelist and head of the Faber Academy Fiction Programme, and Amanda Saint, novelist, short story writer and Retreat West founder, will be teaching.  Two runners-up will get a book bundle.

The Writers & Artists team will choose a longlist from all entries, Amanda Saint will choose the shortlist; and Jane Elmor, novelist and Open University Creative Writing MA tutor, will choose the winning 3 stories from them.

Find out more and how to enter on the Writers & Artists website.

Get more info on the Plotting Retreat here.

Richard Skinner on landscape and setting

Richard Skinner is a novelist, poet and creative writing teacher that runs the Faber Academy fiction programme. He has been involved in many Retreat West writing retreats and competitions and the focus has often been on landscape and setting in a novel, so here’s what he had to say about it in answer to my questions on this important element that we need to get right.

Creating a believable world for our stories is so important but how do you think writers can find that balance between enabling the reader to see the world the characters inhabit and overloading on too much landscape and setting detail?

For me, the best way to try to evoke the sense of place is to do so through character. The tempting thing to do is to describe, describe, describe, but the reader will be much more connected to your setting if it is evoked because of what the characters are seeing or doing rather than in spite of them. What you’re after is a kind of fusion between character and setting. Make it feel like your character is ‘touching’ the setting and your reader will be there.

A good example of this is Albert Camus’ The Outsider, as he steps onto the white sand beach: “The sun was crashing down onto the sea and the sand and shattering into little pieces.” When he is handed the gun, the sun “glinted off it” and “the whole beach was reverberating in the sun and pressing against me from behind”. At the decisive moment, when Mersault is about to shoot the Arab, he says, “All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead … The sea swept ashore a great breath of fire. The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame.”

This example of Camus’ famous ‘white prose’ is stripped down and directly connective between character and setting.

What other stories/novels do you think have got that balance right and why?

Could we possibly imagine Ulysses without its Dublin setting, or if Kafka’s The Trial wasn’t set in Prague, or Faulkner’s novels without their setting in Yoknapatawpha County? All these places are ‘local’ to these writers and their books would be unthinkable without their strong sense of place. I have a real love of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native because of its wonderful Egdon Heath setting.

But, for me, the novel whose story is most indistinguishiable from its setting is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The evocation of place in that book is phenomenal and, in the character of Heathcliff, we get its perfect, total embodiment. In the book, Heathcliff is less a person and more a force of nature and, to reflect this, he is named after the landscape itself. Heathcliff IS Wuthering Heights.

Which novel would you say has left the most impression on you for the way the landscape and setting was portrayed? For me, Dirt Music by Tim Winton left indelible images of Australia’s diverse landscapes in my mind and was also relevant to what the characters were going through.

Along with Camus’ The Outsider, one of my favourite novels is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and one of the main reasons I love it is for its incredible Saharan setting. The desert is as much of a character in the book as any of the people. Port and Kit’s journey starts at the coast, in a well-populated city, and goes directly inland, stopping at places that become fewer and further between and less and less well-populated until, ultimately, they arrive in the middle of nowhere. The desert takes on an increasingly claustrophobic, ‘emptying’ role, smothering love and hope until all that is left is sand and wind. This doomed journey into the desert is a subtle, sophisticated metaphor for their relationship.
Many thanks, Richard.
What do you think about landscape and setting and how it has to tie in to your narrative arc? What books do you think do this really well?

Character & Conflict: Driving the story forward

Richard Skinner (novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and head of the Faber Academy fiction programme) hosted a workshop at a character and conflict retreat in 2015. He focused on conflict being the heart of your novel and what drives the plot, character development and the entire story.

Richard, why is conflict so important in creating characters that readers can relate to remember?
If plot is the engine of a narrative, its heart, then the idea of ‘conflict’ is the heartbeat. Put simply, without ‘conflict’, there is no story. If the fact that a character will find success is never in doubt, there is no interest or involvement for the reader. The gap between desire and its fulfillment is what drives the story and keeps us glued to the page.

Does conflict in novels have to be on an epic scale?
The conflict doesn’t have to be on a grand scale—war, for instance—and every decision doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Conflict can be internal and much quieter, existing on a quotidian level, small scale, as it does in Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac, but it must be there.

Which novels do you think use conflict really well to develop character and drive the novel forward in synch with each other?
Conflict within a novel can work on many levels. First of all, there is ‘personal’ conflict, the fight a person has with themselves. This may be the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, as in the case of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or it might be the result of a dissatisfaction (as it is for Emma Bovary), or a ‘disaffection’—Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for example.

Secondly, there is ‘interpersonal’ conflict, the conflict between two people who, for whatever reason, do not see eye to eye. This kind of conflict is at its most heightened when it is based on a protagonist and antagonist who have mutually exclusive goals, so that, if the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, it is at the expense of the antagonist, and vice versa. One very common example of this kind of conflict is the story of the ‘hunter and the hunted’, which is the template for countless Boys’ Own adventure stories. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Javert mercilessly and relentlessly pursues the reformed convict Valjean.

A more recent novel that is a good example of conflict is Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994). During the novel, Billy Parham crosses the US-Mexico border three times: the first time to release a wolf back into the wild; the second to recover his father’s horses; the third to search for his brother. Each time he crosses the border, he loses something—the wolf, the horses, his brother—and he returns home empty-handed. In turn, each loss necessitates that he cross the border again. It is a magnificent novel and one of the best embodiments of pure conflict that I know.

Finally, there is ‘social’ conflict, which arises between one person and a whole community. In general, this type of story is the result of differently held views, whether it be an individual’s non-conformist approach to life (Crime and Punishment, for example), or the result a person maintaining their integrity in the face of great hostility, as in Twelve Angry Men. The permutations are endless, but all stories with this level of conflict have in common the idea of ‘one person against the world’.

There is another level of conflict, namely that between man and his environment, but as the subject of these stories is usually some form of natural phenomenon, they typically don’t pay much attention to character. This kind of conflict is to be found in movies such as Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, etc.

What does your teaching focus on to help writers get deeper inside their characters and develop different levels and layers of conflict?
I look at ways of putting obstacles in the character’s path to make life difficult for them. When placing obstacles for the characters to overcome, one important point to bear in mind is to ensure that those events don’t just happen to your characters, but that they happen because of them. It is easy, and tempting, just to hurl random impediments at characters, but they should in some way be the result of a character’s actions and decisions.

If something ‘just happens’ to a character, and they are not seen to act on or react to it, your character will be cast merely as a passive victim of circumstance rather than being an active generator of incident. In this instance, you need to ensure that character determines plot, not the other way round.

What are the three key things writers should know to develop conflict?
1) If you want a character to become rich, the first thing you do is rob them. 2) A character should achieve their success, not just acquire it. 3) Characters must pay some kind of price for what they desire and that cost is our investment in their story.