Tag Archives: novels

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.

Interview with Mary Griese, BSSA 2017 2nd Prize Winner

Mary seeing her story in print for the first time at our anthology launch at Mr B’s Bookshop Bath in November, 2017


To inspire you to write for the 2018 Bath Short Story Award, with a first prize of £1200 this year, we’ve interviewed some of our winning and short listed writers in the 2017 competition. Here, BSSA team members, Anna and Jude talk to Mary Griese, our 2017 second prize winner, who lives locally to Bath. You can read Mary’s story Perfomance in the Hills, in the  BSSA 2017 Anthology which is available to buy here on the website, in Mr B’s Bookshop Bath and via Amazon



Jude:Euan Thorneycroft our BSSA 2017 judge said ‘Performance in the Hills’, your second prize winning story, was one of the most individual of all he read, with a totally authentic depiction of life in rural Mid Wales. Can you tell us how the story came into being?

Mary reading ‘Performance in the Hills’ at the BSSA 2017 anthology launch

Mary: I often begin stories with an incident from my life, however small and then embellish it. On this occasion, a man at the 2016 Royal Welsh Agricultural Show asked if I remembered him. He was the boy in the story – the ‘misguided’ child who almost killed the baby birds, and in the past I took him to task for such an incident on the farm where I lived. I also incorporated the ‘golden horse’, which belongs to my neighbour into the story. My neighbour is an incredible and courageous horsewoman. Her golden horse was unmanageable and she rescued him from slaughter and re-broke him, Monty Roberts style. We were talking one morning, with him dancing politely around me and she was telling me about his wonderfully kind character/changing coat/golden eyes etc. I had been walking my dog trying to come up with a story-line to go alongside my misguided small boy and the baby birds. And there it was, the spark for the rest of the story – a magical five minutes. Today, I just met my friend in the lane riding that same beautiful horse. He looked absolutely amazing in the morning sunshine. She said he’s the most spiritual creature, born a thousand years ago! I expect there’s another story in there too.

Anna:What was the first short story you wrote?

Mary: I remember the title even now – ‘Fire on the Moor’. I was about 12, on a remote farm in Cornwall. The traditional burning of the gorse got out of control – a little girl saved the day!

Anna: Do you find there are particular themes running through your stories?

Mary: Certainly. Farming/dark country matters/sheep/nuns/eccentrics.

Jude: Does your completed novel, which is with your agent Jane Conway Gordan,who is seeking publication for it, contain these themes? Can you give us a brief synopsis of the plot?

A card of one of Mary’s paintings of sheep.

Mary:Yes, my novel, Man in Sheep’s Clothing, does contains these elements. It’s a darkly themed coming-of-age story set in the 1960s in the Black Mountains in Wales. Bethan, the young protagonist, the only child of a bohemian family who have moved to the area, becomes mesmerised by the dysfunctional Williams family who rent Cwmgwrach (valley of the witches), an isolated sheep farm. Bethan is particularly drawn to Morgan, the wild son who both frightens and fascinates her. She’s a rebel too, and after she is expelled from the local convent school for standing up to the sadistic nuns, her love of animals and farming grows. When the Williams’ lose their tenancy of Cwmgwarch a few years later, Bethan’s father buys the farm and he and Bethan begin sheep farming themselves. Morgan, now a loner, with delusional tendencies, helps when they struggle with lambing, but his intentions are much darker, and eventually Bethan, alone and friendless after her father dies, has to find a way to get rid of him.

Jude: That’s a very intriguing summary, with echoes I think of the entanglements in Wuthering Heights – a wild remote setting, a rebellious female protagonist, dangerous obsessions with unstable men, and brooding revenge. A great mix. We wish you all the best for publication and hope to see it in print soon.

Anna: You are a successful artist, writer and farmer – how do these three important parts of your life interact?

Mary:Today I wrote, walked the dog, helped turn the cows out, wrote and began a commission of a painting of a labrador. Farming is very important to me and no doubt inspires my writing. I’ve always thought my painting comes automatically, but as I can’t ‘get into’ my current writing projects while I’m wielding my paintbrush, maybe not!

Anna: Who is your favourite short story writer and why?

It’s difficult to choose just one. Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield hold my attention with their beautiful, clever subtle prose and (seemingly) little plot. They always provide good examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘less is more’.

Anna: Have you any tips on entering a competition for prospective writers?

As I said earlier, I recommend beginning with an event however small from your own life and then fictionalising it with more details. Entering writing competitions is exciting and an excellent discipline. Many people work well with a deadline. Keep trying.

December, 2017.

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Annemarie Neary

Anne marie pic

Annemarie is an Irish-born, London-based novelist and short story writer. Her novel, Siren, forthcoming from Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK) on 24 March 2016, is one the Independent’s ’10 best book club reads for 2016′. Annemarie’s stories have been published in Ireland, the UK and the US and broadcast on RTE radio.Her short fiction awards include the Bryan MacMahon and Michael McLaverty short story competitions (Ireland), the Columbia Journal fiction prize (US), the Posara prize (Italy) and prizes in the Bridport, Fish, UPP Short FICTION, KWS Hilary Mantel, WOW! and Sean O Faolain awards. A Parachute in the Lime Tree, set in neutral Ireland in 1941, was published by The History Press Ireland in 2012. annemarieneary.com 


 You can read Annemarie’s story, ‘Gon-do-la’, in our 2014 Bath Short Story Award Anthology, still available from Amazon in  the digital edition. We’re really looking forward to reading her novel, ‘Siren’, published later this month.

Interview by Jude, March, 2016.

  • Siren, your forthcoming novel is described by Random House as a “dark and suspenseful

    Pre-order Siren from Amazon. Published 24th March

    psychological thriller” Can you tell us more about the novel and what inspired the story?

Róisín Burns has spent the last 20 years becoming someone else. When her new life in New York starts to unravel she learns that Brian Lonergan, the man who blighted her Belfast childhood, has also reinvented himself. He is now a rising politician with a wipe-clean past and a sharp suit. But scandal is brewing in Ireland, and Róisín knows the truth. When she travels back to the remote island where Lonergan has a holiday home, she means to confront him with a demand of her own. But Lonergan is one step ahead. When she arrives on Lamb Island, someone else is waiting for her.

The story was sparked off by a notorious incident that took place in Belfast in the Seventies, and by more recent stories of personal trauma pitted against political reality. I’m interested in outsiders, and both my point of view characters are people who, for very different reasons, have been left behind. As for Lamb Island, it is strongly influenced by various islands in Roaringwater Bay in West Cork, one of my favourite places. Aspects of the geography are taken from Cape Clear, the most beautiful island of them all, but Lamb is a place of its own.

  •  You have another novel coming out next year with Penguin Random House. Is that novel also a psychological thriller?

It is, but with a very different setting and theme. The next novel is set in the present day, in and around a South London common. I’m still working on the first draft, but reluctant motherhood is an important element, as is sibling conflict and self-delusion.

  • You have won or been placed in many prestigious short story awards in recent years. Can you tell us what you enjoy about writing short stories and how you know when one of your stories feels ready to enter a competition?

I love when a story evolves from a fleck of detail into something I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. That’s the joy of short stories for me. There is no responsibility to rein them in, at least not in that first draft.  As for when they’re ready, that’s one of the hardest things to decide. One thing is for sure, though — it’s never ‘probably fine’. I have quite a few stories that still aren’t ready, and might never be. The experience of writing those ‘failed’ stories is not waste of time, though. The act of expression crystallizes fictional elements and fixes them in the imagination. It’s surprising how often they find their place elsewhere. Having worked exclusively on novels for the past while, I feel a bit out of practice when it comes to short stories. I’m trying to write one at the moment, as it happens, but I have a good deal of chipping away to do yet.

 You’ve also judged several short story competitions, including the inaugural round of Bath Flash Fiction Award last year, and most recently the WOW! award in Ireland. What makes a winning story stand out for you?

In each case, I’ve been beguiled by a voice. That’s not to say that my winner is necessarily the ‘best’ story, whatever that it. There are usually about three or four very good stories. It’s the one that feels the most fresh and surprising and engaging to me. I think longevity is important, too. I read and re-read and leave them aside, though I rarely change my mind. I’ve judged about five competitions now, and I remember each winner vividly.

  •  In another interview on this site, I asked short story writer Danielle McLaughlin  how she thought being a lawyer had influenced her fiction. She said the skill sets of lawyers and writers are similar.  “Both jobs involve working with words very precisely and being tuned in to things like nuance and tone…Both jobs require a lot of creativity and both bring a lot of stories to your desk, a lot of drama...” Would you agree with this from your long career as a lawyer?

I agree with what Danielle says about precision and an awareness of nuance and tone. In fact, those qualities are very evident in her own work, which is sublimely nuanced. As for the drama of life as a lawyer, I think she might have had more thrilling subject matter than I did!  I worked with commercial contracts most of the time and didn’t find the job terribly creative or dramatic. However, I did find the ability to cut to the chase, to get to the nub of the matter, really helpful when I started to write fiction. Ironically, the story I’m trying to write at present is the first one that has any connection at all to my former career. During the first Gulf War, I travelled to Algiers to negotiate a contract and the story deals with the power play of the negotiations, the self-conscious Orientalism of the hotel and an unadvised solo trip to the Casbah. I think there’s a story in there somewhere. I hope so! 

  • Which short story writers would you recommend others to read? And why would you recommend them?

Since you mention Danielle McLaughlin, I’d recommend ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ to any aspiring short story writer. Her work is so subtle and fine-tuned and emotionally precise. As a collection, it’s also a masterclass in the suppression of writerly ego — full of remarkable phrases, but without unnecessary showiness. People talk about how sad the stories are. Well, yes and no. There’s also a wry humour at play in many of them. In terms of the canon, I could read William Trevor forever. He is a master of restraint and empathy, and perhaps that’s the kind of story for which he’s best known. But he also has immense range. There is a jaded worldliness in many of his stories, particularly those set in Italy, that appeals to me.

  •  Finally, can you give us your top tip for anyone planning to enter a short story for our 2016 competition?

Delete that first paragraph (probably). In any case, take us right into your world before we have a chance to back out. And voice your story. Breathe it. Make sure you’ve read it aloud before submitting. I think that’s probably two tips, really!  Immediacy and voice.