Participants: Kathleen Marple Kalb, Maria Johnson, Sandy Stuckless, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Rik Lonsdale, Karen Heenan, Iza Forestspirit, Chris Towndrow, Cheryl Whiting, Jack Lench, Tonya Atkinson, Deborah Klée
Where are you from and what is your WIP?
Elizabeth: Hi everyone! I’m Elizabeth from Kent. I don’t have a WIP at the moment but I’m hoping to soon do a re-write of the first book I ever wrote.
Sandy: I’m Sandy from Toronto, Canada. Currently working on my married monster hunter novel The Stone and Scrolls. Hoping to have a readable draft by the summer.
Deborah: Hi Sandy. What is married monster hunter? Sounds intriguing
Sandy: It’s about a married couple who work for a secret society that hunts and destroys supernatural monsters. They’re currently in Romania trying to prevent the rise of Dracula, but their marital problems keep getting in the way.
Maria: Hi! I’m Maria, from North Wales & living in NW England. Taking a break from my current #WIP which is my 4th novel in my Celtic historical fiction series. Also currently doing #CampNaNoWriMo where I’m rewriting a mystery novel I wrote last year.
Deborah: Hi Maria How is that rewrite going?
Maria: Going okay so far thanks! I’m taking the characters & setting but changing most of the plot so there is lots of tweaking. Gotten to the point now where I can write the main meat of the new plot, so looking forward to digging into that!
Gerald: Hi Deborah! I’m Gerald, I’m from Birmingham, UK, although currently residing in North Essex. My current WIP is Death Under The Pier, the 3rd in a ‘dark cosy’ series based in a small coastal town.
Kathleen: Hi! I’m Kathleen. Currently working on a new historical mystery proposal featuring a silent film actress.
Anita: Hi, All. I am Anita now living near the Essex Sunshine Coast, UK. Born in Manchester. Made in London. My WIP is currently a children’s book. Also have Ruby Sixpence book 2 on a back burner; adult, magical realism romance.
Deborah: Hi I’m Deborah and my WIP is contemporary fiction set in 1980 world of magic theatre
Iza: I’m Iza from Finland, I am writing a fantasy anthology series of stories inspired by mythology and Tolkien.
Jack: Jack. Suffering lockdown in Warwickshire. I’m trying my hand at some short stories. Just completed The Last Glass of Bordeaux. Friends at a dinner party have to divulge a secret to win the last glass of wine.
Chris: Hi, Chris from Richmond, Surrey. I’m currently editing a #histfic Western about a man’s journey to connect with the son he believed dead, but who is deaf. It deals with forgiveness, guilt, and prejudice towards the Native Americans, the deaf, and ASL.
Karen: I’m Karen, and I live just outside Philadelphia in the US. My current WIP is the third book in my Tudor-era series, and it’s in the resting phase while I work on the audio for my second book.
Cheryl: Just popping into say Hi. An aspiring writer of non-fiction, but I’m following the thread with interest, and its inspiring It’s been a good week for me. I’ve committed to writing 2 x 2hr stints every day this week.
If the beginning of each scene or chapter is as important as the first one what do you try and achieve in your writing and how successful do you think you are?
Gerald: I treat them differently. For commercial reasons, the opening of the novel needs to hook the reader in. I probably spend 3 X as much time on the opening chapter as the others.
Elizabeth: My approach is the same. I also try to go back and rewrite the first chapter once I’ve finished the book and found its ‘voice’. I think it’s nice to make each chapter different to hook the reader in different ways.
Anita: I find that once I get a good opening line, the rest of the scene or chapter will flow.
Kathleen: Yes! And I can get stuck for DAYS on that…until suddenly I just hear it!
Sandy: Not sure how successful I am at it, but as I gain more experience, I feel it’s gotten a bit easier.
Anita: Leaving the previous scene on a hook, then cutting away to another scene entirely can be frustrating for the reader, who wants to get back to the hook, but I find this refreshing as a writer. It also keeps the reader reading
Kathleen: I do put a lot more weight on the opening of the book. I think I’ve re-worked the current one at least three times…and there are a couple more to go once all of the plot points are in place!
It’s like the lead to a news story…once you get that first sentence, it flows. I start knowing what needs to happen in the scene, and often that provides the “hook.
Gerald: TBH, once the reader is hooked into the story, the opening of a scene isn’t *that* important. You can use it to set the scene, ‘paint a picture’ as it were. I often use it to set the POV character as early as possible, so the reader knows whose head we’re in.
Karen: I try to vary the start of each scene, action, dialogue, description. It should flow logically from the prior scene, even if it’s not immediately following.
Deborah: I think that the beginning of each scene/chapter and the ending should grab readers. Starting in the right place and as you say varying the approach strengthens the writing.
Karen: To me, the ending is even more important. I realize while editing that I can usually cut the last 1-2 paragraphs of each scene or chapter, because they’re just me thinking I need to say more words when I don’t.
Chris: I don’t think consciously try to achieve anything but what should be expected – enter the scene late & leave early, leave something hanging at the end of each chapter. I also tend towards shorter chapters to ensure pace.
Rik: I think it’s a mistake to apportion importance to beginning/middle/end. Instead, it’s more important to apply craft skills to how you write.
Jack: Agree with other comments. Good strong opening chapter. Once I finish the story, I go back to the beginning again.
What can we learn from film- Movies and TV in writing effective scenes? Are there any examples of great scenes in books and/or film that you have learnt from and tried to apply to your writing?
Elizabeth: I’m looking forward to reading these responses! My latest release has been praised and criticised for being ‘film-like.’
Gerald: I love scenes that create an air of tension. I love using my opening to pan across the location, before zooming in on what I’m writing about.
Anita: Interesting question. I recently wrote a blog post about this: Writing Scenes: How being a filmmaker influences my novel writing. Most of my understanding of story structure comes from film anitabellibooks2020.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/wri…
Rik: I think there is much you can learn from film about ‘story’, structure and such, but writing novel length fiction is utterly different to visual mediums and I think requires greater submersion in the work. You’re in there looking out.
Jack: I like a drama with a strong credible story. Hate red herrings which lead nowhere.
Gerald: All crime mysteries need red herrings or distractions for the reader. They’re essential. Mine are always tied up, so if something isn’t relevant, I always explain why (or at least, I try to).
Jack: A challenge for me is historical fiction. Take 2 or 3 real facts or real people and weaving it into a story. Love it!
Deborah: Psychological thrillers are full of red herrings. There is an art to writing them but this is. not my fav genre
Kathleen: Mystery readers expect some red herrings…but there are different ways to deliver them. Just about everything that happens in my work is related to the characters and their relationships…so nothing is really a dead end. (At least I hope not!)
Deborah: I read that it is good to think about the scene as if you have a camera. Where is it focused? Close up or distant? @anitabellibooks will have good thoughts on this being a film maker
Rik: Emma Darwin has a great post on psychic distance which may link in to this. I’ll look it up later. I’m a great fan of her blogs. There’s so much and so perceptive. emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwrit…
Maria: In TV & movies I think a lot of it is down to the atmosphere & setting in a scene, then really tense dialogue is always memorable. Eg in the US cop sitcom Brooklyn 99, the writing is masterful at having hilarious comedy and then moving, serious conversation.
Elizabeth: This is a really great topic. Modern day readers are so used to the imagery, suspense, etc… from films that it has to influence novels.
Kathleen: That is a great point about reader expectations, which are HUGE in some genres. (Mystery for sure!)
Deborah: Can you summarise expectations in mystery? If not maybe for another chat? Interested as my current novel is probably mystery.
Kathleen: Basically, mystery readers tend to prefer a crime early on, and a plot focused on solving that murder, with most, if not all, of the action somehow relate.
Anita: In a novel, you can get under the skin of a character. In film, the closest you can get in big close up. The emotional landscape of the character is so often carried by the soundtrack.
Chris: Very apposite. I’m a videographer, studied filmmaking and screenwriting, and the roots of some of my ideas – especially my #WIP – are in film. I think very visually, so I see chapters as scenes, and I have a good ear for US dialogue.
Sandy: I had structure in mind too. I use the 3-act structure for my novels, which is common in screenwriting. I learn a lot about story beats and pacing from it.
Karen: I try to vary the start of each scene, action, dialogue, description. It should flow logically from the prior scene, even if it’s not immediately following. The biggest thing I’ve learned from movies and TV is to leave the party early. I don’t need to finish a scene, or an event, or a conversation. I can end on a high note.
How do you avoid having too many scenes where characters are having tea/coffee etc? What are the more unusual settings you have written for your characters to interact?
Jack: A poker game
Chris: In a previous book I had to consciously stop all the chats being in the police station, but I wouldn’t force anything unrealistic. Unusual conversation settings? In a boat atop Niagara Falls, in a 100yo 2CV, Eiffel Tower observation deck
Elizabeth: Mine drink gin instead I try to include everyday things like popping to the shops, to the pub, etc… In romance books I think it’s nice to include those everyday things so you really feel like you can step into the character’s shoes.
Kathleen: You’re so right! One of the ways I work to make my diva and movie actress relatable is that you see them buying magazines, or making dinner, or sending the kid to school.
Elizabeth: Those little touches really connect the reader!
Deborah: That’s a good idea Elizabeth. Do you use the weather in scenes?
Elizabeth: I do sometimes! Finding You makes a few references to the weather as my MC starts out living on the streets.
Kathleen: My characters DO spend a lot of time drinking coffee…but they do it in a radio studio (contemporary mystery), or after a fencing match or rehearsal (historical) and the atmosphere of the MC’s work is always there.
Anita: A well-known dilemma, especially if the setting for the story is a cafe or pub (Once Upon A Blue Moon.) Divas, Dogs and Dreamers was set backstage in theatre, which offered perspectives, from the wardrobe dept to the fly floor, stage, orchestra pit and auditorium.
Maria: I think it’s about balance & how it serves the plot. A tense scene around a kitchen table can be fantastic – but can also be overdone/feel repetitive. I’ve probably written some unusual scenes like battles, caves, etc but then I do write Celtic historical fiction.
Deborah: I think that’s why it’s important to have an interesting setting for the novel. My current WIP is in a Victorian theatre and full of magicians and their props I have lots of scope.
Kathleen: I just love the backstage setting! (I use it in my historicals, too!) There is so much mystery and fun and opportunity for interesting happenings.
Gerald: My current series is based on a coffee shop But they don’t always drink tea or coffee. Sometimes they just meet. My characters go where I tell them to, which is usually important to the plot.
Sandy: I tend to have too few of these scenes actually. My early readers tell me I need to slow the pacing down to give characters and readers a breather. Not sure I have any really unusual settings. One of my pieces takes place in a mansion that dwells between dimensions.
Rik: If they’re sitting having coffee then nothing’s happening. I need to move the dialogue to a meaningful space or create a real reason for them to seek out coffee that’s pertinent to the story. Coffee is an easy option when I’m stuck for ideas. It will have to improve.
Karen: That’s been difficult in my WIP, because my MC and her husband only see each other in the evenings & talk over wine before bedtime. The variety comes in interactions with other characters, on horseback, while dancing, while dressing or undressing the queen.
Gerald: My next series has a main character who runs a pub. I’ve learnt my lesson, and look forward to undertaking many, many hours of research.
How do you make sure each scene/chapter hits all the right notes? What are these?
Sandy: This is where my beta readers come in. I can only tell so much because I’m so close to the work. I need objective eyes that’ll tell me when it sucks.
Elizabeth: Editing is where I really focus on scenes/chapters. This is my chance to make sure they each flow and provide a purpose. For me, each chapter needs to move the story forward/ provide an insight into my MC.
Deborah: I have a spreadsheet where I record the climax of each scene, first and last line, POV, purpose, any motifs etc
Sandy: I have a separate outline file that records many of the same things. I also keep track of setting details and character moments as well as they have a huge impact on each scene.
Kathleen: I do use an outline for the main MS…but usually only a sentence or two for a scene if I’m not writing immediately. I like to write the first draft more intuitively.
Gerald: For someone who is an intense plotter, I ‘pants’ each scene. I know who’s there, and I know what needs to happen. This is the other part of the creative process. I use one for creating the story (overall), and a different one for creating the scenes,
Rik: and then there’s the rewrite!
Gerald: Ah, but then if you create a detailed plan (create your story) then the rewrite (create your manuscript which tells that story) doesn’t need to happen. I sometimes rewrite one scene, or add or remove one, or move them around. But no manuscript rewrites.
Rik: I disagree. Rewrite is where all those word choices come under scrutiny, where you ask ‘can I push this further’ Where all the guff is cut.
Gerald: I know that’s the traditional approach. And each scene, in turn, comes under scrutiny in 1st edit, after beta read, and pre-publish. So, I suppose you could call that rewriting.
Maria: I try to think about the mood & pacing of the scene I’m in & have characters try to relate to each other authentically in that context. E.g. after a battle scene, trying to depict people’s grief but also the relief of the survivors.
Kathleen: That’s a great way to balance it…and make the characters real!
Deborah: I read somewhere about having an event, then reaction, reflection and new action. I try and follow this.
Maria: yes! I think that’s how we interact with things really, it’s about the ebb & flow of it. If you piled too much action at once readers might feel overwhelmed, no conflict/action & readers might find it boring. Either way there’s a danger of losing interest.
Deborah: It is also a good way to pick up from the last scene from a character’s POV if you are alternating POV between chapters as I tend to.
Rik: It depends where you are in the story, and what structure you are using. The outline should give some idea of what each scene should be achieving in terms of character arc and reader experience.
Gerald: I don’t know! I don’t pay much attention to the “rules” of scenes. You can wrap yourself up with too much prescription. Each scene performs a specific function in the plot. 1st scene needs to ‘grab’.
Anita: How do you make sure each scene/chapter hits all the right notes? I think – feel it; live it.
Deborah: Reading back and feeling the emotion as a reader too.
Can you recommend any resources for writing great scenes? What is the most helpful advice you have received?
Maria: I think music can be a great resource for getting your head into different scenes – unless you’d find that distracting, of course! I often have different types of music I listen to on Spotify when I’m writing. I often vary it based on the mood of the scene etc.
Anita: I was fortunate: I learned to write at Film School in London and the writing tutor wrote Hollywood film scripts. It was all about scenes; keeping the story moving and depicting characters with dialogue. Scene setting with a few words; creating atmosphere in layers.
Rik: I’m a fan of John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’
Rik: No matter how well written, evocative, emotive, etc If the story doesn’t need the scene it has to go.
Sandy: Yeah, I’ve had to kill more than a few darlings…
Deborah: Absolutely but as we said last week – recycle – never throw away.
Rik: One’s personal ‘slush pile.’
Gerald: I like “Make A Scene” by Jordan Rosenfeld. It goes into a lot of detail about what makes a good scene. Also (for me) “How To Write A Murder Scene” by James Sterling is good.
Deborah: C.S. Lakin’s book on learning to write scenes from film Shoot Your Novel and of course @anitabellibooks blog.
Anita: I think music can be a great resource for getting your head into different scenes – unless you’d find that distracting, of course! I often have different types of music I listen to on Spotify when I’m writing. I often vary it based on the mood of the scene etc.
Sandy: Oh boy, can I! @KMWeiland‘s website helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com is a treasure trove of information. blog.janicehardy.com @Janice_Hardy Fiction University is another one that has a ton of info. onestopforwriters.com is also in my top resources list.