Story Inspiration

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.

Time is running out

We close at midnight Monday 1st  May. Give yourself the chance of hitting the bull’s eye and winning £1000 first prize, second prize of £200, third prize of £100, £50 prize for an unpublished writer or  £50 local prize by checking —

  • The rules — there are  always a number of writers who  submit stories way over the word limit of 2200 words. Or put their names on stories.  Don’t risk getting disqualified for those reasons.
  •  Give our readers a pleasant reading experience by writing in a clear font. Bold fonts are not easy.  Or any fancy italics or Comic Sans. Times New Roman is a safe bet.
  • If you are entering online, please be sure to  send your stories and paypal receipts to the correct email address which is on the entry page.
  • Put the correct postage on your hard copy stories.

Finally give your story a final once over for typos etc. We’re not too strict here, but a beautifully presented story, is a bonus. Zap a few adjectives and adverbs maybe,. Check the beginning paragraph. Does it hook the reader in? Check the final paragraph. Does it feel satisfying, not too cosy, not too obscure? What about the title? Does it add something to the story

Good luck!  Our readers are already on the case and results will be out in mid or late July.

Jude,

BSSA team April 28th.

 

 

 

 

Finding the right title

How do you create a good title? So much has been written about this. Good ones stay with you for ever. I love Raymond Carver’s famous short story title, which is also the title of one of his collections,  “What we talk about when we talk about love.” Gordon Lish, his editor, retitled it  “I Am Going to Sit Down.” but thankfully,  it  was never published in that version.

There’s a fun thing I saw recently somewhere online, which suggested writing  bad versions of famous titles of novels and short stories. For example, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ could be ‘The Fruits of Anger’. Worse, another Steinbeck novel. ‘Of Mice and Men’ could be translated into  ‘Of Rodents and Males.”What about ‘Offspring and Their Romantic Partners’? Or ‘Fondness in the Season of the Plague’. Silly, but useful to study the originals and see how they work. Is it the weight of the words, or what they encompass about the book. Is it the rhythm or the length of the title?

Some of the most used titles for short stories are ‘The Gift’, ‘Dust’, ‘Flight’.”Lost and Found’, ‘Memories’, ‘Skin.’ We have had several entries with these titles at Bath Short Story Award. One year we had two stories on the short list titled ‘Flight’. They were good stories, but different titles could have reflected something else in the piece and may have made them even stronger.

Maybe the words in the picture on this post  could inspire a short story. Or a title?

So before you send in your entry, check your title. Does it enhance your story? Could you extend or contract it? Is it a cliche or overused? Have fun making title revisions. And remember, we close in two weeks on 1st May.

BSSA team member, Jude, April 2017.

 

Dream up a short story

 

Bath Short Story Award 2017 ends on May 1st, but you’ve still time to write and enter your up to 2200 word story.

Unless you are able to practice lucid dreaming, you can’t control your dreams and they’re good story material as a result, often taking unusual angles on well-worn themes or offering you something wonderfully surreal. Steven King apparently dreamed the whole plot of ‘Misery’ – remember the plot about the author captured by a female psychopath?

In dreams, events unfold in ways you might not have imagined.  Interestingly, they often fall into three acts, like a fairy tale.

Have you remembered a dream  recently? If so, write it down and see if it has three scenes, a beginning middle and end. What is the crisis point in this dream? What is the resolution?  If  you can only remember a fragment of a dream, treat it like a prompt. Take a word, a dream character or an atmosphere from your dream memory and get writing.

Want to try out more ways of turning dreams into fiction after this year’s Bath Short Story Award is over on May 1st? Come to the first ever Festival entirely devoted to Flash Fiction in Bath on 24/25th June in Bath. Jude, one of our BSSA team members is the director of the festival.  She’s running an early morning Dream Breakfast on the Sunday morning of the festival. Coffee and croissants provided.  Here, you’ll be able to try out other ways of creating a short-short story from your dream or dream fragment.

All the major players in the Flash Fiction world ,UK will be at the festival running workshops to get you to try out different ways of approaching short short fiction. And we’ve just learned that  a distinguished International Guest – renowned short story, flash fiction writer and teacher, Pamela Painter from the USA is coming to teach and read. There are also, talks, a  book launch an evening of readings, a festival-long contest  and more. Do come! flashfictionfestival.com

 

 

 

Road trips

In most short story contests,  filter judges say they see a lot of stories on similar subjects – relationship break downs feature strongly in their many different forms. Affairs, death of a hated partner by nefarious means, abuse.  I don’t think we’ve seen many road -trip stories at Bath Short Story Award.  These feature strongly in films of course. Thelma and Louise is a famous example. You can’t fit too many road-trip events into a short story of 2200 words or less, but you could include a vehicle as a setting and see where that takes you. Colin Barrett, a short story writer our judge Euan Thorneycroft likes very much, writes a great description of the inside of a car at the beginning of  Calm With Horses, a wonderful story from his prize winning debut collection Young Skins (Vintage Books, 2014). This car doesn’t feature as a major player in the story, but it does show much about some of the characters.

“The car was orginally Dympna’s Uncle Hector’s, a battered cranberry Corolla Dympna labelled the shit box, its interior upholstered in tan vinyl that stank of motor oil, cigarette ash and dog. Recessed into the dash was a dead radio, its cassette tape slot jammed with calcified gobs of blue-tack, butt-ends and pre-euro-era Irish coins. The dash smelled of fused electricals. Above Arm’s head, a row of memorial cards, their laminate covers wilted by age and light, were tucked into a sun visor and a red-beaded rosary chain was tangled around the inverted T of the rear-view mirror.”

So why not write about a car of your acquaintance past or present. Create a fiction around it.  Remember its smells and its quirks. That car could take your story on a road trip you never expected.

Jude. March, 2017.

FEBRUARY 14th

 

List of those not buying cards and/or red roses on February 14th:

  • Richard the Second (not the one of car park fame) – too busy being murdered in Pontrefact Castle (1399)
  • Captain James Cook – also too busy being murdered, but by natives in Hawaii (1799)
  • Alexander Fleming – too busy publishing a mouldy old report (1929)
  • Al Capone – too busy arranging the massacre of members of a rival gang (also 1929)
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn – too busy being charged with treason, being expelled from Russia and revoking his citizenship (1974)
  • Husband Klaus – not too busy, but of the mindset that Valentine’s Day is part of a great Hallmark conspiracy to make him look bad

Those sending cards may well have included the eponymous saint. During his captivity in the 3rd Century A.D., Valentine is alleged to have fallen in love with a young girl to whom, on the night before his execution on February 14th, he sent a card signed, ‘ From your Valentine’. Or Latin words to that effect. Or not?

Legend, the mating habits of birds and Medieval notions of courtly love became so entwined by the 14th Century, that Chaucer in his ‘Parlement of Foules’ wrote

‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make’

( Translation: ‘ For this was on St Valentine’s Day when every bird comes there choose his mate.’)

and, in doing so, sowed the seeds for cellophane bouquets six hundred years later. The first ‘cards’, a love letter and a poem, were written in the 15th Century – one in English, one in French – and are kept in the British Library archives (though not on view). But they are there. Facts. History.

So whatever your associations with February 14th – whether the folklore, historical or contemporary elements most appeal – could you use them as the starting point for a story? And not necessarily about love. Up to 2,200 words by May 1st – get writing! .

 

Story Inspiration – using travel journals

BSSA team member and intrepid traveller, Anna Schlesinger tells us about using travel journals to inspire her writing.

During over forty years of travelling around the world, my first trips taking place to Russia and East Germany, followed by Poland and Czechslovakia when they were ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, I have always kept a travel journal. More recently I have explored China and Cambodia, Malawi and Mali and the countries of South America including Chile and Easter Island. I’m planning a trip to the Congo next year.

When I’m home I print out selected photographs as I like to have both pictures and journal side by side to recapture ‘moments’, perhaps thrilling and sometimes frightening.

A travel journal is not a diary. I use it like a companion, storing moments worth remembering: road signs that warn of cassowaries ahead, fishermen standing in their boats dragging nets while one foot steers a pole in the water, a shanty clinging to the side of a volcano or the green eyes of a begging child. I am not denigrating the tourist industry that offers traditional dancing and singing, or festivals that bombard the senses with colour and noise to remind us we are far from home – but there is a more personal side that lies in unexpected moments. In shards of patterned pottery along unexcavated parts of the Silk Route, the flash of a Red Bishop in dark canopies at sundown, lianas curling through spiritual ruins like snakes gaining control, or the footprint of a lion beside a tent in the early morning.

A short story is a journey of the imagination and my journal can be its trigger. It can jog my mind into remembering smells and sounds until I am off on a flight of fancy with people I’ve not met before; characters who have escapades and experiences I’ve not been part of – for their journey is my short story.

 

Anna Schlesinger, February 2017.