Books as Mentors

Haleh Agar is a writer whose work has been published widely in literary journals and magazines including Mslexia, The London Magazine, Flash: The International Short: Short Story Magazine and Brighton Prize. She has recently won two literary prizes including the Brighton Prize and the London Magazine prize for her essay ‘On Writing Ethnic Stories’ She is represented by Darley Anderson Agency for her debut novel OUR FATHER.

Haleh is running a workshop on ‘The representation of People of Colour (PoC) in Fiction and Characterisation’ at the forthcoming Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol 20th -22nd July. A useful workshop for writers of any level and any genre who would like to work on characterisation and explore current issues on PoC in publishing. Booking for the festival closes on July 6th. We recommend taking a look on the site, linked above,  to find out more details about Haleh’s workshop on this important subject, plus all the other workshops and events on offer.

In this blog post below, Haleh has some straightforward advice about improving writing by reading. Again, extremely useful tips for anyone who wants to stand out and be noticed by agents and in competitions.

Books as Mentors

When people ask about my writing process I tell them that I would be lost if it weren’t for my reading. It wasn’t until I started ‘reading seriously’ that I saw improvements in my writing, not only in quality but also in output. Every aspiring writer will have come across this generic advice about ‘reading widely’ or ‘reading in your genre’ and not much beyond that. I have come across some books and articles about ‘reading like a writer’ but I’ve found most of the advice prescriptive and time consuming.

Over the years, I’ve simplified my reading process and as a result, I’ve always got material on hand that I’m excited to read and that I find useful to my writing practice.

What to Read?
It is easy to feel inundated by choice when it comes to selecting your next read. Friends, blogger, vloggers, newspaper reviewers, twitter, authors and their agents and editors—everyone has an opinion on what you should read next.

As a writer, I read for enjoyment but also for instruction. I think of books as mentors and there is nothing more exciting for me than discovering a new author whose work I can’t part with.

Over the years, I have used one simple question as a guide to choosing my next read: What excites me about a book?

For me, this is a character-driven work with a strong narrative voice, beautiful prose and depth. Usually, the genre of writing that interests me falls under accessible literary fiction, but not always. Of course, this description of what I’m looking for doesn’t mean that I’ll dislike anything that falls outside of those boundaries, but rather, it gives me the focus I need to my reading and writing. I recommend anyone who hasn’t tried before to write themselves a mini bio like literary agent do, letting the question, ‘What excited me about a book’ guide you.

Sample: Ditch It or Love It
There is no greater resource to my development as a writer than my local library and e-book reader. It means that I can check out or download samples of multiple books that fit the description of my ‘ideal book’ or even something outside of these boundaries without my bank account taking a hit. It also means that I feel zero guilt about ditching a book when it no longer excites me.

Some people subscribe to the belief that you must finish a book you’ve started. But it could be that ten pages in, the quirky main character who you initially liked becomes intolerable and you can’t handle another minute with them. If I’m still excited by the language or some other aspect of the book, I’ll keep reading. But if the pull to continue is not strong enough, I’ll ditch. Life is too short for reading books that don’t excite you. It’s time you could be using to read something that you feel connected to and that will help improve your practice. Some say, ‘Well, as a writer, you can learn a lot from reading a book that you aren’t keen on or ‘bad books’.’ This is true. But why not spend time instead with a book that you read with enthusiasm? Having been a teacher for many years, I have seen first-hand how much more learning is achieved when students are excited about they’re doing.

Some people may feel morally conflicted about this sampling strategy. What about supporting writers? I will always buy a book that I love after I’ve read it, not only as a way to support the author but also as a reference to go back to and I often go back to work that has moved me.

This sampling method was also really helpful when I was approaching the difficult task of querying literary agents. It made me see how there are many great books out there that have been published, but they’re not necessarily books that fit what I’m looking for. In this way, rejection from a literary agent is depersonalized—your book may just not get them excited and you want someone who can’t part with your work. Finding a book that speaks to you is much like finding a partner. Every book has its own merits, but it might not be the right one for you! That’s why it’s a good idea when querying agents to do your research and see what gets them excited about a book to see if you’re a match.

Read Big and Small
I’m always reading flash and short stories alongside a novel. The economy of short fiction form means that the authors are making every word count. Shorter forms of fiction are also great references to go back to and re-read. When you are no longer reading for plot and orienting yourself to the story, you can focus on other elements like language. I seem to always discover something new about a work when I have another look.

Just the other week I was struggling with writing ‘love’ in a convincing way and I looked again at The Department of Speculation (though a novel, it’s told in short vignettes) as an example and it helped bring about solutions to this problem.

Reading short fiction also means that if I’m in between novels, I’ve still got brilliant work to read. It’s like training in the gym, you don’t want to break away from reading for too long at the risk of those muscles going soft. Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Lydia Davies, Leone Ross, Carmen Maria Machado, Jon McGregor and Colm Toibin are a few authors whose short fiction collections I go back to. There’s also a great Twitter community of flashers whose work I can easily access and enjoy and learn from.

Some say, well why bother reading novels at all if short fiction can teach you so much? For me, there’s something very pleasant about being wrapped up in a novel. If it’s the right fit, then it feels like home. As a novelist, I also find I need reminding about how to successfully carry through an idea in this lengthy form. Novel writing is like marathon training. It can be easy to lose sight of character or plot and reading novels can serve as a reminder of how to approach the mammoth task of it.

Analyse or Move On?
The teacher in me wants to analyse a work, write in its margins and pick it apart. But I find that in reality, this kind of analysis that one might do on a course can be too time consuming to sustain on an ongoing basis. When I come across a great passage, I go back to the beginning of it and read slowly and if I’m feeling particularly excited, I might highlight.

Once I’ve read a work, I sometimes tweet about it, engage with others who’ve read it and look again at the reviews it received. In this way there is an exchange. I might ask myself the question—what did I like about this work? But I tend to draw the line there and have faith that my brain will do something useful with all the reading, retrieve it in the right moment when I’m stuck with a writing problem.
For me, the main goal of reading is to read work that I’m excited about every day for at least an hour so anything that feels like too much work beyond that will be sacrificed.

Embrace Great Reads
In one of my Creative Writing courses, we went around the room on the first day and discussed our favourite books. A few people admitted that they found it difficult to read because it felt like a shot to their self-confidence. How can they ever live up to these great authors? I can understand about feelings of inadequacy when it comes to writing. I have yet to find a writer who doesn’t have self-doubt. And for this reason, it is important to remember that published authors have only gotten to where they are through disciplined reading and writing.

So the next time you read a work that makes you feel nervous, embrace it. It means that you’ve found a new mentor.