Tag Archives: flash fiction

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.

Latest Author News

Fourteen weeks to go now until BSSA 2017 ends on May 1st, 2017. To inspire you to enter this year, here are some recent further success stories from our  BSSA 2016 award winners and other authors whose stories you can read in our 2016 short story award anthology

Anne O’Brien reading at the BSSA 2016 anthology launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Books Bath, with our cover designer and BSSA 2014 winner, Elinor Nash, in the background

We were delighted to learn that Anne 0’Brien, our first prize winner, BSSA 2016, has just won second prize in the prestigious The London Magazine’s short story competition and her story, I Have Called You By Your Name will be published alongside the winner, writer Emma Hughes and Dan Powell, our BSSA 2015 second prize winner, who won third prize in the contest with his story The Ideal Husband Exhibition. William Pei Shih, shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with his story Mrs Li was also shortlisted in The London Magazine competition as was one of our BSSA 2016 longlisted writers, Marie Gethins. Congratulations to all!

Ingrid Jendzrejewski ,shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with her story We Were Curious About Boys was successful in many different competitions in 2016 and has started off 2017 in great style by winning the flash fiction competition in the long-established literary journal Tears in the Fence.  Her story, Many a Pearl is Still Hidden in the Oyster will be published in their next issue due out in February.

US writer, Thomas M Atkinson, shortlisted for BSSA 2016  with his story Dancing Turtle, has, among several other 2016 successes, had his story ‘Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills’ selected for New Stories from the Midwest 2016  (New American Press) along with such writing luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Baxter, and Laura van den Berg. The publication is due out soon. The guest editor was author and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin. Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills first appeared in The Sun magazine and received two Pushcart Prize nominations.

Clare Reddaway’s  story Avocet which you can read in the BSSA 2016 anthology is also going to be published in the lovely Project Calm magazine’s third issue out in the late Spring. We’re sure it will be illustrated beautifully there.

We hope we’ve included all recent successes. Do let us know your news, authors!

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal

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We are re-posting Jude’s interview from early 2015 with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal. Since that time, for the second year in a row, Kit won the Bridport Flash Fiction Award in 2015. Her second prize winning story in BSSA 2014, ‘The Beautiful Thing.’ was produced and broadcast for BBC Radio 4 in March 2015 by our 2016 shortlist judge, BBC Radio 4 producer, Mair Bosworth and Kit has recently been named as one of the Guardian New Faces for Fiction,2016 in advance of her hotly anticipated debut novel, My Name is Leon, which is published in June, 2016. We can’t wait to read it!

We also urge you to apply for, or tell people about the creative writing scholarship Kit has generously created and funded for Birkbeck College. The closing date for applications is 15th February, 2016. Read a full description of the scholarship on the link above. Here’s a summary:

“The first Kit de Waal Scholarship will be launched in October at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This new scholarship will provide a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA (part-time) over two years, from 2016–2018.It is intended to support a talented student who would not otherwise be able to afford to do the course, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds — including but not confined to care leavers, ex-prisoners, members of BAME communities, people with a disability and those from socio-economically deprived and marginalized groups.”

Biography

Kit De Waal spent fifteen years in criminal and family law before becoming a writer. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2013’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. In 2014 she gained second place in the Costa Short Story Award with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’.

In 2014 she was also longlisted for the Bristol Prize, won first prize in the  Bridport Flash Fiction competition with her story ‘Romans Chapter 1, Verse 29’. Her fiction, ‘Blue in Green’, won the Reader’s Choice Prize in the Sl Leeds Literary Prize 2014, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast her story ‘Adrift at the Athena’, which was commissioned for the anthology, ‘A Midlands Odyssey’ by Nine Arches Press. In December, 2014, after  a six way bidding auction, Viking secured rights to publish  her debut novel,  My Name Is Leon,  Venetia Butterfield, Publishing Director of Viking, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’

Interview by Jude, January 2015.

  • In 2014 you won second prize in the Bath Short Story Award competition, first prize in the Bridport Flash Fiction, the readers’ choice in Sl Leeds Literary Prize for your work, Blue in Green, and after a six-way auction, your debut novel My Name is Leon was secured by Viking. Can you tell us more about your novel?

My Name is Leon is the story of two brothers separated by adoption and is published on 2nd June this year. The story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. I set the story in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy is lost and grieving and going unnoticed . I hear it keeps making people cry although that wasn’t my intention!

  • You write very short fiction, longer stories and full length novels successfully. We loved your second prize story, ‘The Beautiful Thing’ and totally agree with the comments of our 2014 shortlist judge, literary agent Lucy Luck who said it “involved very strong story telling” and “the ending was extremely well done” Have you always written stories in several different fictional modes? Do you have phases focusing on one form, or move regularly between them all?

I like all forms of prose, flash, shorts and novels.I don’t think I’ve ever read a novella though and certainly never tried to write one. They are very different animals and need different story telling skills. For flash, you have to choose your moment – chose the moment – one that illustrates a beginning and an end without actually writing it. It’s the moment in all the best films where the tiny gesture – the arm on the shoulder, the shake of the head, the door left open – when you say ‘yes’ that’s what the story is about.

In short stories you have more scope but the narration is everything.  I find if I have the voice of the story teller – not me – and I stay rigidly in that voice and in that point of view, it’s easier to move back and forwards in time and in depth.There are conventions though – I do try and stay in one place or not move about too much as I think it breaks the spell.

And for novels, well the sky is the limit. My Name is Leon is written in close third person almost but not quite in the voice of the child and it was a real challenge remaining with Leon throughout and not letting myself intrude too much. While I was writing the novel, I cut out a picture of a ten year old boy and stuck it on my computer and I would look at it and say ‘This is you speaking, not me’, or ‘What do you see in this scene? What do you notice?’ I think it worked. Novels give the writer the most freedom but also the most challenges and carry the most risks.  It’s devastating when you think something doesn’t work because it can effect the rest of the manuscript, maybe 30,000 words.

  • Is Blue in Green, your prize winning entry for the Sl Leeds Literary Prize, another novel in progress?

My next novel is nearing final draft stage. My usual process is for there to be a lot of research and thinking – staring out of windows and scrubbing.It takes a good while for me to start writing.  I’m a real plotter and like to have everything lined up –the end, the twists, the characters’ back stories – then I can let loose.

  • Can you say more about your journey as a writer?

I started writing seriously maybe ten years ago and three years ago decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. Doing the MA was as much so that I could tell myself I was taking seriously as wanting to learn about the craft. I read a lot of books, met some great people and did learn but overwhelmingly I decided during that year that I would write for the rest of my life, that I would get published and that was that. I had to make it work. I helped to set up two writing groups, Oxford Narrative Group and Leather Lane Writers. The people in those groups are my support network, my friends and genuine critics.

  • Which short story writers and novelists do you admire and why?

I am training myself to spend more time reading contemporary fiction. My first loves were the classics – Arnold Bennett, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Somerset Maugham. All of those writers – and I’ve read all of their works – managed to get under my skin. I would read them and I was there, not on the page but in the page, in the story.More recently I’ve read Kevin Barry who has a way of describing the ordinary that I dream of being able to do. I also like Cormac McCarthy.

  • Do you have some tips on honing a short story ready for a competition?

If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.