Unusual beginnings

Sam Hacking shares her techniques for starting a new story

Sam Hacking is an early career writer. We spoke to her about how she began her writing journey and her advice for anyone who is just getting starting out.

This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack Beginnings, made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

What advice would you give to new writers?

Do your OWN work and find your voice. It’s great to be inspired by others, but be confident in your own style. Writing should always evolve. Be part of the writing community, go to writing events, use social media to find out about opportunities, and always share your work with your peers. It’s hard, but being too precious about your work will only make it more painful in the long run. At the same time, don’t share your work with loads of people, as that can be confusing with multiple feedback!


As a short story writer and reader, what do you think makes a killer beginning in fiction?

I write short fiction, so have to pack a lot of punch early on. It’s important to be quite brutal, but also sparse. Don’t over-feed the reader. Intrigue is key, as is steering clear of cliché. Also, let the reader make up their own minds, you don’t need to explain how your character is feeling through descriptions, better for the reader to feel it through dialogue or surroundings. The beginning has to carry you forward to the next bit, so don’t over indulge otherwise the reader gets bored, but also don’t be too vague, otherwise the reader will get lost.


Introduce us to a beginning you love, and why?

“The elderly lady bleeds every day in my favourite cafe. The owner accommodates this and surrounds her with buckets. He mops it up. Sometimes he puts her in a bathtub, right there in the centre of the café, and she fills it up, laughing and bleeding. People applaud and remark on her unique nature.”

That’s the opening extract of ‘Blood’ by Oliver Zarandi, from the collection Soft Fruit in the Sun.

Straight away you’re thrust into a weird, macabre scenario that leaves you asking many questions. Is it a dream, is this real, what kind of bleeding, why would she just be bleeding etc. It is absurd, but also has elements of truth to it. Its short clipped statements take chunks out of you. It is repulsive but tender at the same time and as its bizarre you want you read on to know what is going on. The language is also stripped, sparse and makes no apologies for lack of context.


How you begin a new story?

I’m a painter and hugely inspired by the natural world, so many of my stories will come from a landscape I’ve painted, or places I’ve visited. I tend to wait till the story finds me, rather than trying to find the story. I don’t write everyday as I find that counter-intuitive, and for me quality counts way more than quantity. I tend to have an image of the natural world or a character arrive in my mind first, and then I always listen to music to pull out the emotions to drive the piece. I have to write in busy places – such as cafes – and listen to music, as being immersed in an overly stimulated environment helps me to pull bits of the story from different angles, whether it’s the people I see around me, or the emotion of a particular song, or the details of my surroundings. I try to trust in the process of creativity, as it’s not a linear thing for me, it’s very abstract and unpredictable, which I love.


As a visual artist, how did you get into writing and why?

I began writing as a purely visual form, interested in mark making and code making at Slade School of Fine Art, moving into writing mini plays for live art pieces. When I started painting landscapes, poetry followed, as I would write about the landscapes I visited before I painted them. My first formal writing course was at Goldsmiths University for ‘How to write short stories that resonate’, which helped me to collect the looseness of my poetry (which was much more focused on rhythm, pattern, sound and images than words could get across) and began to tighten that form into narrative, structure and solidity of short fiction. I’d say my art and writing is inseparable, as I’m obsessed with the natural world, so a landscape painting will inspire a short story and vice versa. I also do a lot of film and photography in the natural world, and again, characters and settings from these images will inspire a story.


Writing Exercise: The Sam Hacking Method

I definitely look for over-stimulation to bring the story to me. It’s important to me to find the story in unusual places.

  1. Go to galleries and write about a person in a portrait or the light and atmosphere
  2. Sit in a cafe and write about someone there
  3. Listen to music that taps into something deeply emotional within you and write whatever images and things come to mind
  4. Walk with pad in hand and write observations of what you see
  5. Draw or paint a scene from a favourite book of yours and write something from that picture as a new story
  6. Record passing conversations and dialogue you hear in the street
  7. Take yourself to a place in natural world (whether that’s a park to a forest) and just sit there. Write any thought/feeling/response that comes to you
  8. Watch films! A lot of my characters come from atmosphere and images created in films I’ve seen, such as David Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story’. I tend to jot down what it is about that character that makes them so compelling, or a visual image/setting that I’ll look to replicate in my storytelling
  9. Basically put yourself IN the scene, going to a party, dancing, watching a play and drawing on visual and sensory stimulus plucks characters, atmosphere, incidences, moments that prompt a story. I find this way more inspiring than sitting at a desk day after day, in silence, waiting for words to appear on a screen.

Sam Hacking is a writer and visual artist interested in experimental voice and characters’ relationships with landscape. She lives in Norwich and is currently writing her first short story collection.