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A Teenage Sci-Fi Evening With Ben Oliver – 21 September 2022

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Acting, bar work, waiting on tables, teaching: and amidst them all, a succession of rejections for novel after novel after novel. Writer of teenage science fiction, Ben Oliver came to share his experiences after having his first book in The Loop trilogy, published in 2020. With the trilogy completed with The Arc in 2022, and with a fourth novel due out next year, and discussions already underway, our first visiting speaker is clearly on the up, with disappointments behind him.

Ben bravely shared the first page of each early attempt to illustrate how he realised that each was an improvement on the last. The flood of adjectives and adverbs slowed after the first. Subsequent efforts saw improvements in tone, or pace, or mood, until an agent finally said “yes.”

But, as their efforts to attract a publishing deal also proved unsuccessful, it was back to the laptop, those early pages consigned to the past.

However, as we sat there knowing that Ben had recently seen the final volume in his trilogy published, we were starting to guess what the theme of his advice might be: determination.

“Rejections are part of the job,” he advised. But, after trying shorter forms of fiction, getting a handful of stories published, and realising that he should write the book he wanted to read as a teenager, the dam was obviously burst.

Downplaying his ability to inspire, Ben charged us to focus on discipline and determination above the “i” word. He echoed so many others who exhort us to just keep writing and get that first draft finished, get the words on the page, drag yourself to the end of the story, shun the temptation to edit or polish those early pages. There were guilty nods of understanding around the room, the owner of each no doubt picturing the first two, three or four chapters of a handful of fledgling masterpieces relegated to a bottom draw, momentum dissolving as the fear of the “big empty space in the middle” defeated those with weaker resolve.

And only then, he said, can you start shaping it, cutting out those erudite passages of purple prose that make absolutely no contribution to the plot or character development, as he talked of second, third and fourth drafts.

As he spoke, we gleaned and scribbled what ought to be sage advice:

  • Have we found our voice, one with which we are comfortable?
  • Are our characters vivid and can we cinematically see them?
  • Are there pages that just meander and drift, or is the pace unrelentingly breathless?
  • Will your reader see the character and story arcs?
  • Have you stumbled over clumsy dialogue by reading your material aloud?
  • Have you thought about the message and not just concentrated on the scenes you write?

Ben still writes the occasional short story. Given the darkness of the dystopian landscapes his characters inhabit, I guess the short form comes as light relief. “Traumatic, emotional and thrilling” is how he has described The Loop and its successors in his trilogy, begging the question of how writers of this genre maintain a presence, or switch from their fictional worlds.

Gradually the evening became fruitfully conversational. Questions about evolving themes in teenage fiction followed observations about writing spaces and coffeeshop corners. Curiosity about writing room dynamics, when authors meet script and screenplay writers, flowed from questions about media rights, options and those early forays into acting. And inevitably someone asked about what Ben would be looking for as the adjudicator of our novel competition…

… but maybe you should have been there … that’ll teach you.

Otherwise, don’t forget that sometimes discipline and determination can trump inspiration.


Nigel Ward

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