BBC Opening Lines: How to write for listeners, not readers

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Every year BBC Radio 4 runs a short story competition called Opening Lines. The deadline for 2015 is 13th February. The three winners get their story broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and they get to see it being professionally recorded.

Last year my story – Baker, Emily and Me – was one of the three winners. You can read it here.

I haven’t been told why the judges picked my story over the hundreds of entries they received, but I sometimes wonder if it had something to do with the fact that I cut my writing teeth on short stories which I had to read aloud to an audience. Eight years ago I started writing pieces for a short story event held at my local library – Winchester Discovery Centre. People signed up to write a five minute story and read it out to a paying audience. On the night, after all the stories had been read, the audience voted, and the winner and the second-placed writer got a share of the door’s takings. I came second a few times, and once I came first. I probably earned £15.87. But it wasn’t about the money; it was about the experience: getting immediate feedback on what an audience likes (or doesn’t) and understanding what works when writing is read aloud.

Short stories which will be listened to, need different considerations to those which will be read on paper or screen. A listener, unlike a reader, has no opportunity to go back and re-read and so the writer has to think about things differently. Here are some of the things I considered when I wrote Baker, Emily and Me:

  • Don’t introduce too many characters at once.
  • You can start in the middle of the action, but don’t assume your listener will know where they are or what’s happening. At some point make sure your story gives them an indication of location, time period, age of characters etc.
  • Don’t have too much dialogue. (When a story is read by one voice, the listener can’t easily distinguish between characters, and won’t know who said what – especially if there are more than two characters speaking.)
  • Keep the story moving forward. Going off on a tangent for a long section or giving too much back-story can make your listeners lose the thread.
  • Keep flashbacks to a minimum, or at least keep them short, interspersed with the main forward-moving story. Too many flashbacks can also mean listeners lose the thread.
  • Don’t be too subtle. OK, you don’t need hand everything to your listener on a plate, but remember they can’t go back to see how the beginning of your story ties in with the ending; they have to keep the whole story in their head with just one hearing.
  • Stick to the guidelines for word length or timing. Opening Lines is very specific – between 1,900 words and 2,000 words – because stories need to fit into a specific scheduling slot.
  • Read your story aloud to yourself (many times), and then aloud to someone who has never read or heard it before, to check they can follow it.

Winning Opening Lines was an amazing experience. I loved sitting in the recording studio, and of course hearing my story broadcast. (Here’s a short blog post I wrote at the time.)

I would urge anyone to enter. You never know who will be listening…

Flash fiction: For the love of squirrels

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My mother fed the squirrels left-overs: scraps of bacon rind, apple peelings, and the skins of grilled tomatoes that my father left on his plate. The squirrels would only go to her – sitting in the palm of her hand to eat. She named them, worried about them, loved them, more than her own child.

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The investigating officer thought the fire had started in the attic. ‘The electrical cables were probably gnawed through,’ he said, putting his hand over mine.

‘Squirrels?’ I asked.

‘I’m afraid so.’

As he completed his report I bit my cheek hard and right on cue, the tears flowed.

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A Friday Fictioneers 100-word (or so) story inspired by the picture supplied by Ted Strutz. Friday Fictioneers is organised and run by the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in, and here to read other pieces. I’d love to know what you think of mine – please leave a comment!

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Click here to sign up to my newsletter to receive information on give-aways, competitions, events and updates about my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, which will be published shortly.

Short story: The cockerel

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Every morning for a month Nanette and I trudged behind our father down to the boat. We each carried an oar, and he carried the cockerel. Everyone stared as he tied the flapping bird to the transom, and rowed out to sea. He didn’t care.

‘What’s he doing?’ someone asked.

‘Looking for our mother,’ Nanette said. I turned away, too wretched to hear her explanation: that Norwegians believe the cockerel will crow when the boat moves over the drowned.

The following day the cockerel got loose and my father sat on the sand and cried, and I turned away once more.

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A Friday Fictioneers 100-word (or so) story inspired by the picture supplied by Georgia Koch. Friday Fictioneers is organised and run by the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in, and here to read other pieces.

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If any Canadian readers are interested in winning a copy of my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, Goodreads is hosting a giveaway for people who live in Canada. (Apologies again to all the Friday Fictioneers from the States!)

Flash fiction: For Sale

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‘Perhaps put some coffee on,’ the estate agent said, striding from the kitchen to the dining room. I tagged along behind. ‘Courtyard could be brightened up. And maybe lay the table.’ I must have looked bewildered. ‘It all helps. Viewers need to see it as a home, not just a house.’

It is home, I wanted to tell him. Was a home…briefly.

That night I fell asleep on the sofa surrounded by wrapping paper and boxes, but I had found the percolator and the dinner service. In the morning I put the rest of the wedding presents back under the stairs.

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A Friday Fictioneers 100-word (or so) story inspired by the picture supplied by Jan Wayne Fields. Friday Fictioneers is organised and run by the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in, and here to read other pieces.

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This week I was delighted to be included in The Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’ article. You can see it online here.

And for the next 15 hours only you can win one of five copies of Our Endless Numbered Days, via Goodreads. (UK readers only I’m afraid.)

Short story: Betty Came by to Say Goodbye

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“It was about a month ago, I can’t be sure. Said she was going on a road-trip. Hitch-hiking Route 66. No, at the time it didn’t seem odd. Seventy you say? Wow. Her rucksack was real heavy. Now that I do remember… Well, let’s see, I suppose I must have picked it up. No, my wife wasn’t home. Sure, you can ask the neighbours, but I’m pretty confident they were at work. You want to take a look in my cellar? Go right ahead, just watch out for that second step, Officer; I’m gonna get it fixed one of these days.”

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This is a 100-ish flash fiction piece for Friday Fictioneers. Click here to read more stories inspired by the picture, or here to join in.

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This week I wrote a letter to my husband’s dead first wife: Dear Jane…

Dear Jane

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A letter to my husband’s dead first wife

Dear Jane,

There are two things I want to thank you for.

You and I never met, never got to know each other, never talked about books and writing, never shared confidences over a glass of wine, but we have shared the same husband. I know from him and your best friend that you were shy and quiet, that you took a long time to get to know someone well, but I like to think we might have been friends.

It’s obvious, but without you dying I would never have met Tim. He loved you, (still loves you) and would never have gone looking for someone new if you had lived. All that is true, but the first thing I want to thank you for is what you made him promise: that after you’d gone he wouldn’t stay on his own; he would go out and meet someone else. I can’t imagine anything braver.

You and our husband were together for fourteen years. When you were diagnosed with breast cancer the two of you decided to get married. It was a small wedding; I’ve seen the pictures – you in a simple dress and a headscarf, our husband looking uncomfortable in a suit. For two years you fought disease, facing a mastectomy, a gruelling drug regime and many hospital treatments, but when you knew your illness was terminal, you found the strength to prepare our husband for your death. When he didn’t want to face the fact that very soon you would be gone, you insisted the two of you talk about it, and again and again you told him that he must carry on without you; that he must go out and face the world. One of the bravest things you did was to contact the WAY Foundation (an organisation for those who lose a spouse at an early age). You got their leaflets and left them for our husband so that he would have support after you died. And when he was ready, he did as you suggested and through the friendships he made there he was able to start looking outwards again.  Would I have had that kind of courage? I’m not sure, especially knowing the man I would be leaving behind.

We chose our husband well – he is the most generous, kind-hearted and funny man I’ve ever met. You chose your best friend well too, and you would be pleased to hear that she looked after our husband when you died, going with him to register your death, helping to organise your funeral, crying and laughing together at the absurdity that you, at only 36, were gone. And a year and a half ago your best friend was ‘best man’ at our wedding, and she has become my close friend.

You wrote a diary, and so that I could understand a little more about the months before your death, our husband gave it to me to read. Historical diaries are published and read all the time, but I’m still uneasy about the ethics of reading yours. Although I can’t say that now I know what it was like for you, your diary helped me understand more clearly what the two of you were going through. You had stopped working by then, and it took all of your effort just to walk into town each day for a coffee. When you knew life was going to be taken away you noticed everything around you – the sky, the flowers, the couples, the conversations, the children.

And this is the second thing I want to thank you for – for reminding me to live each day to the full, to stop complaining about the petty things, to look at the sky, and the couples and the children and our husband, and to be grateful for what I have.

Thank you.

Claire

Giveaways, Reviews and Mentions

Goodreads giveaway

Our Endless Numbered Days will be published this year. It’s been a long wait (over 18 months from when the novel was sold to Penguin in the UK). It will be released by Tin House in the US on 17th March, and to celebrate they’ve arranged a Goodreads giveaway. There are 10 free books available to US readers. Just enter your details here before 7th January for a chance of winning.

The beginning of a new year often brings with it those lists of ‘what books to look out for in 2015′, and I’m pleased to say that Our Endless Numbered Days featured in a few of them:

Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa: Fiction Hot Picks 2015. This is a wonderful blog about reading and writing. She selected 13 novels due to be released shortly, and read many more.

Naomi Frisby’s Writes of Women: Ones to Read in 2015. A blog dedicated to writing by and about women writers; another blog well worth following. Naomi chose 16 books that have gone straight on my ‘to be read’ pile.

Huffington Post: Best Debut Fiction Coming in 2015. Hannah Beckerman selected 20 debuts coming in the first half of 2015.

The Guardian: The Most Eagerly Awaited Fiction 2015. A brief mention for Our Endless Numbered Days in a UK national paper.

The Readers: Books to Look Forward to in Spring and Summer 2015. If you prefer to listen to book recommendations this book-based banter podcast is great. Simon and Gavin list thirteen books each that they’re looking forward to in 2015.

The Globe and Mail (A Canadian newspaper): The 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2015 (the first half anyway).

The Chicago Tribune: 2015 Book Preview – the Future in Reading. Our Endless Numbered Days is listed with three others under the section, ‘Future Tense: Stories of Mystery, Horror and Suspense’.

Bella’s Bookshelves: Our Endless Numbered Days. A review from an early reader from Canada. “The atmosphere, the setting, the details…everything was so palpable that it feels like memory.”

And finally, in KIRKUS reviews an early review: “Fuller’s compelling coming-of-age story, narrated from the perspective of Peggy’s return to civilization, is delivered in translucent prose.”

So, don’t forget if you’re based in the US and would like a chance to get a free copy of Our Endless Numbered Days, don’t forget to go to Goodreads and click ‘enter to win’.

Spaghetti Wednesday

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Nan plonked the bowls down on the table.

‘What is it?’ Flora asked.

Nan sighed like she did every Wednesday. ‘Spaghetti.’

‘Again?’

‘Again.’ She watched Flora push strips of Kraft cheese single into the sauce. Flaccid worms curled through a brown swamp, swirling with radioactive orange. She hated cooking.

‘What’s this?’ Flora held up a blob pierced by a fork tine.

‘Nothing,’ said Nan. ‘Just eat it.’

‘I think it’s an insect.’

‘It’s not an insect.’

Later, scraping the left-overs into the bin, Nan pretended not to see the pairs of tiny pincers, hooked legs and cooked eyes staring up at her.

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You can blame the picture this week on Doug MacIlroy and the choice of it on Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to read more Friday Fictioneers stories, and here to join in.

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This week, Our Endless Numbered Days has been picked as one of Isabel Costello’s thirteen Hot Fiction Picks 2015. If you visit her website you can enter a competition to win your choice of one the books listed. (UK postage only.)