Guest Blog: Getting to the heart of your story (Bryony Pearce)

In our third guest blog post, the author of over 11 books and one of our first UV finalists, Bryony Pearce (UV2008), encourages writers to really get to the heart of their story to make sure every moment resonates with its purpose. 

Getting to the heart of your story

It is easy to get to the heart of your story, right? After all, it’s your story. You wrote it. You know what’s at the heart of it. But, as a mentor of aspiring writers, I find that this is one of the areas that is most complex and confusing. People regularly struggle with this and sometimes, even miss it out, leaving their stories heartless and, consequently, pretty lifeless.

So, what is the heartbeat that drives the blood through your story? How can you identify it and how can you keep the focus there?

For this you need a two-pronged approach.

First, you need to know the message of your story.

What do you want your reader to take away?

Is your message that ‘bullying is bad’ (like my Weight of Souls), or is it a message about growing up (like my Phoenix Series), is it a feminist message (Windrunner’s Daughter), is it about trust and blame (The Girl on the Platform, Raising Hell, Savage Island, Cruel Castle).

What is your message?

Sometimes, if you’ve come up with a story first, and it’s grown organically, you might not know why it is that you’ve picked this story to tell. So, take some time and unpick it – this could involve some soul-searching. You need to ask yourself:

  • Why is this story important to you?
  • What does it take from your own life?
  • What do the characters fear and what do they learn?
  • How does it end?

You should be able to tell, when answering these questions, what message is, or should be, at the heart of your story.

Once you know your message, write it down, pin it somewhere you can see it and make sure you are thinking of it all the time when you are writing. How can each scene emphasise this message?

In The Weight of Souls, for example, my story about bullying, the main character is bullied, not only by the stereotypical school bully (and associates), but by those who stand by and let it happen and by her father, who forces her to bend to his will. Every character in the story has some relation to the bullying at its heart – perhaps they are standing by her, perhaps they have abandoned her for fear of retribution, perhaps they are ignoring what is happening. In the end, the bullies get their comeuppance and lessons about empathy are learned. The main character learns to love and trust again.

Once you know your message, and you know that each scene must reinforce that message, the next step is to make sure you drive your narrative onward while keeping your message at its heart. The best way to do this is to ensure that your main character has a goal. A mission, if you like,which relates to your message,which has stakes for failure, and which will propel your protagonist through the adventure you are writing.

In The Weight of Souls, one of Taylor’s bullies is murdered and she has to solve the crime. If she fails, there are supernatural as well as real-world consequences (stakes) – the murderer will get away with it and will likely strike again.

This goal (and the stakes for failure) should be introduced during the inciting incident. The goal should not be achieved until the climax and it should drive the narrative to a conclusion that reinforces your message.

When entering the UV anthology, you can only send your opening, so you must make sure that the message (heart) of your story is beating throughout your first few thousand words.

Your character’s goal should grow from your character’s needs, wants and fears, so establish those in your introduction by giving us scenes that show us who your character is. Establish the mood of your story, which will reinforce your message and, if you can, give us a scene or scenes that highlight your message. For example, in the opening of The Weight of Souls, we meet a gang of nasty bullies. In Raising Hell, Ivy defeats a hell hound, only to be blamed for failing to protect a student from a rich family. In my winning UV entry, we saw my female MC facing her mother’s illness and deciding to defy the rules of the patriarchy and go out alone to save her.

Good luck with your writing and I hope to get the chance to buy your book one day.


Bryony Pearce was a winner of UV 2008, which seems really long ago now! Winning UV helped secure her an agent and, since then, she has sold eleven books to publishers, including YA award winners: Angel’s Fury, Savage Island and Phoenix Rising. She has also had several short stories published in adult sci-fi anthologies and has, recently, branched out into writing adult thrillers.

Her debut adult thriller, The Girl on the Platform, was published on 15th April by Avon.

She also has two YA novels out this year, Raising Hell (UCLAN – June) and the sequel to Savage Island: Cruel Castle (Stripes –August).

She lives in the Forest of Dean and is always looking for new writer friends. Find her on Twitter @BryonyPearce, on Instagram @bryonypearce, or on her website: www.bryonypearce.co.uk.

Guest Blog: The Secret Power of Critique Groups (Helen MacKenzie)

Our second guest blog reveals the secret behind the success of three of last year’s finalists. Helen MacKenzie (UV2020), whose extract was Hagstone, illuminates the power of giving and receiving feedback to improve a writer’s chances of success. 

The Secret Power of Critique Groups

I used to be scared of critique groups. The thought of showing people my work, let alone getting feedback, was terrifying. I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. I scribbled alone, telling myself that I was a good writer, that I didn’t need anyone’s help, and that I would make it on my own.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Maybe I would have. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that it wasn’t until I joined a critique group that my writing began to improve – and I started to do well in competitions such as Undiscovered Voices.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this was. It’s because a critique group gives you a circle of people willing to commit time and attention to your writing, your story and your characters. For free.

Ideas to tighten your plot, advice about your voice, reassurance that you’re on the right track: a critique group can give you all of this and more. And yes, they might sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear – but after a little reflection, you’ll be grateful for it. And your chances of gaining an agent or winning a competition will dramatically improve.

https://unsplash.com/@providence

Much of the magic of a critique group also comes from having to critique other people’s work. It’s time consuming but I’ve learnt a huge amount about my own writing from critiquing someone else’s. The number of times I’ve commented on something and then thought, ‘Oh! I do that too…’

And that’s the key. Because most folk in a critique group are just like you: willing to try; scared of criticism; but not afraid to work at becoming a better writer. You learn together. Laugh together. You become friends.

SCBWI has a lot of critiques groups, but I was nervous at first to join one. But the first group I approached was happy for me to come along and observe, and I saw for myself the trust and respect that the members of the group had for one another. It was very reassuring. It taught me that a good critique group will encourage as well as critique. It will give feedback in a positive but useful way, and your confidence and your writing will improve as a result. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not the right critique group for you – try another.

I had no qualms after that initial meeting and joined in properly the next month. In fact, I’m such a convert that I’m now a member of three critique groups, one of which I run. It makes for a lot of reading – and writing – but this is actually another plus. I try to submit different chapters to each group and they’ve been a great way of getting my word count up.

So, if you’re thinking of entering Undiscovered Voices, why not polish up your writing with a critique group first? It won’t hurt. Will definitely help. Because when I entered UV2020, two members of my critique group also entered. We worked together, polishing our submissions and synopses. And guess what?

We all got in.


Helen MacKenzie writes YA, middle grade and the odd picture book. She was included in Undiscovered Voices 2020, received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award in 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and longlisted in the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is a member of SCBWI and runs a SCBWI Scotland YA critique group.

Helen lives near Edinburgh and when she’s not working as a copywriter or entering writing competitions, she’s annoying her family on Zoom.

You can find Helen on Twitter @W1shfulth1nker

A Message from Sally Gardner – Honorary Chair 2016

We’re proud to post a message from Sally Gardner shared with our finalists at the launch of this year’s anthology.

Sally talks about her journey to becoming a writer and questions an unhelpful educational focus on the qualifications of being writer (like spelling!) rather than the importance of story and inspiration. She speculates whether one of the greats of English literature might well have been found today thanks to Undiscovered Voices. As a ‘fell-walker’, Sally talks about the difficulty of the creative process and how much luck is needed after the difficult climb up the mountain of ideas.

We’d like to thank Keith Rogerson for recording and editing this video and thank Working Partners for hosting the interview!