Literary agent tips: Nicola Barr at the Bent Agency

We’re delighted to welcome Nicola Barr to the blog today and as the next guest judge of our annual First Chapter competition, which closes in January 2022.

Nicola has been a literary agent for about ten years, and has been with The Bent Agency for four years now. She represents a range of writers across fiction and non-fiction. She has previously worked as an editor at Flamingo, the literary imprint of HarperCollins, a scout for European publishers and a book reviewer for the Guardian and the Observer.

We asked her some questions about what’s going to impress her both as judge of the competition and when submissions land on her desk.

When you read the submissions you receive at The Bent Agency, what is it about a story that gets you excited enough to request the full manuscript?

It’s more voice than story that makes me want to continue reading. But also an author who knows the genre they are writing within and has a set up that I haven’t come across before.  

After a full manuscript request, writers often then get their novel declined so can you give us some insights into what makes you take the next step with a novel and offer the writer representation?

It’s at this stage that the difference between good writing and a good novel becomes so important. That fresh voice that got me to request it has to be maintained but I also have to see that the author can structure a novel, create a satisfying arc that doesn’t become outlandish or — probably worse — dull.

When reading the shortlisted first chapters in this competition what are you going to be looking for and what will make it stand out for you?

I will be looking for natural flowing prose that is a pleasure to read and invites me to read more. Prose that isn’t trying too hard to get my attention but demands that I read on.

What types of novels are you looking for to build your list?

Upmarket thrillers, upmarket commercial women’s fiction, literary novels of any description. I like novels about families, about different generations, about big houses, siblings, secrets from the past having an impact on the present. I also love a good childhood narrator and haven’t fallen in love with one of those for a long time.  

When you’re reading for pleasure, who are your favourite writers and what is it you like about their work?

I love smart women who write about relationships, with other women, with their families, with the world around them. I love Anne Enright, Elizabeth Strout, Emma Straub, Bernardine Evaristo, Rachel Cusk, Katherine Heiny, Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, Anna Burns. Debuts I’ve loved recently – Snowflake, Shuggie Bain, Exciting Times.

Thank so much for your time and insights, Nicola.

So if you’ve got a novel that sounds like what Nicola is looking for, polish up up your opening chapter and send it in to be in with a chance of getting detailed editorial feedback on your submission package from Nicola. The deadline is 30th January 2022.

What on Earth is Memoir-in-Flash?

by Jan Kaneen

When Retreat West first revealed the cover of my memoir-in-flash on Twitter, someone asked what I’d been asked again and again since I finished writing The Naming of Bones. What is memoir-in-flash? 

Not wanting to define an emerging form in terms only of what I’d produced, this was my reply, ‘… speaking for myself … my memoir-in-flash is an aspect of my real life written in a series of flash fiction ‘chapters’, that are each standalone … but which, when read in sequence, tell another overarching story.’

The questioner then asked if it was complicated to write. My answer was no, because the truth is, I wrote most of it without knowing what I was writing. Which sounds weird, so let me explain. 

I came to creative writing at the age of fifty as a sort of mindfulness therapy, pouring out free-written stories without ever thinking some of them might be linked. I just knew that writing them made me feel better emotionally. 

My epiphany came in a workshop run by Michael Loveday at the Flash Fiction Festival. That weekend was stuffed full of flash: reading flash, writing flash, chatting flash. I was very nearly all flashed out when, on Sunday afternoon, Michael presented his workshop about sequencing flash. He had us thinking about how theme and imagery can link flashes, and how sometimes writers can write to themes subconsciously. This struck me as fascinating and on the drive home, I stopped for coffee and bunged some of my flashes into WordCounter – Count Words & Correct Writing searching for the words I’d used most to see if this revealed any hidden themes. (Just follow this link if you fancy doing the same – it’s free, though it’s best if you take out common words such as ‘like’ and ‘because’ first). I won’t give away what my key words were, but it was a revelation. 

Over months, I sequenced my, as it turned out, themed and connected flashes, freewriting new ones to fill narrative gaps. This process was very, VERY emotional, and life-changing too, because it allowed me to reconstruct and reclaim my past in a way that was both empowering and healing, which leads me to my final point.

In 2020, I beta-read several novellas-in-flash and was surprised to see that works which draw, sometimes quite heavily on lived experience, are termed novella by their authors. This got me thinking about what differentiates novella-in-flash, i.e. fictional works told ‘in-flash,’ and memoir-in-flash, i.e. works anchored in real events, told ‘in-flash.’ 

I didn’t really find an answer. Maybe it comes down to individual motivation in the writer. Certainly, for me, it was crucial that The Naming of Bones be defined as memoir, because its self-therapeutic potency lies in the form itself – because that immediately tells the reader these characters really lived in a story that actually happened.

So far as I know, The Naming of Bones is the first memoir-in-flash to be published that describes itself as such (and I did look long and hard when I was final editing, keen to find previous examples that might guide my hand). If it is the first, I hope it’s the first of many, because it’s a form stuffed full of creative non-fiction possibilities and so, so much potential. 

Check out The Naming of Bones for yourself:

Introducing: Sam Jordison, judge of the 2021 First Chapter competition

We’re excited to announce that Sam Jordison is the judge for the 2021 First Chapter competition. (The deadline is 31st January, so start thinking about your entry once you’ve checked out Sam’s interview!)

Sam is a publisher, author and journalist. He’s the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and has worked on many successful and award-winning titles — including Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, and Alex Pheby’s Lucia. He also writes about books for The Guardian and has written several non-fiction titles, including Enemies Of The People and the best-selling Crap Towns series.

We caught up with Sam to talk about what makes a submission stand out to him, what Galley Beggar Press looks for — and what he loves to read for fun, too. Competition entrants, take note!

  • When you receive a submission at Galley Beggar Press, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full manuscript?

Mainly, it’s the sentences. If those grab us, we keep going. I’m afraid I can’t really give you an exact definition of those sentences or what it is that has to work… But it’s an inexact science. It’s a gut feeling and subjective aesthetic judgement as much as anything else…

  • Galley Beggar Press has a reputation for publishing innovative work and taking a gamble on novels that the trad publishers won’t. Is innovation something you exclusively look for when reading submissions or are you also interested in traditional storytelling approaches?

It’s not necessarily something we look for. But I do think it’s something we’re attracted too. I’ve just been reading a fantastic interview with the late great John O’Brien from Dalkey Archive talking about how much he valued subversion in books. Books that aren’t afraid to challenge – and say new things in new ways. I also really liked EL Doctorow’s idea that writing isn’t worth a damn if it isn’t transgressing… Anyway, I guess my general feeling is that writers shouldn’t be conformists. Part of what makes them important is their ability to make us think differently… But, you know, that can also be done through traditional storytelling. I guess. I might have trouble telling you exactly what traditional storytelling is… But it’s worth saying that you don’t have to use complex prose to say complicated things. Or to move emotions.

  • When reading the shortlisted first chapters, what’s going to make a story stand out for you? 

Mainly, I have to refer you to my first two answers, with more apologies about the vagueness of all that. I’m going to respond to beautiful sentences, smart ideas and a feeling that there’s heart in the story. Easier said than done, I know.

  • What types of writers and novels are you looking for at Galley Beggar Press?

Good ones! We just want to publish the best books we can find. Beyond that, we don’t really know. Part of the fun lies in being surprised…

  • When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?

There are too many to list. I’ve just discovered (rather late!) Edith Wharton and am in awe of how good she is. Otherwise, I like lots of the people you might expect: Hemingway, Dickens, the Brontes, Don Delillo, James Baldwin, Penelope Fitzgerald, Michael Ondaatje, PG Wodehouse… Some people are surprised at how much I like Terry Pratchett – but those are mainly people who haven’t read Night Watch. What can I recommend that your readers might not have read. I just finished Who Sleeps With Katz by Todd McEwen and haven’t got over it. The ending broke me! It’s beautiful and funny and made me long to go to New York. I’m re-reading Ragtime by EL Doctorow at the moment, which is a marvel.  

Thank you, Sam, for being our judge this year and for sharing your guidance and insights. To enter, and find out more about our competitions, please do head over here. Good luck!

Author interview: Amanda Huggins

We’re excited to be speaking to Amanda Huggins to celebrate the launch of her short story collection, Scratched Enamel Heart – which includes her 2018 Costa Short Story Award prize-winning story, Red. Amanda’s work has been very widely published; in fiction and poetry anthologies, literary magazines, travel guides and more, as well as in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Take a Break’s Fiction Feast, Traveller, Popshot, Mslexia, Wanderlust, and Writers’ Forum.

Amanda is the author of Separated From the Sea, which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses, and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for poetry. We caught up with Amanda to talk about how her latest collection came to life, the authors that inspire her most and the power of short stories.

Congratulations on the launch of Scratched Enamel Heart. The stories are connected by the theme of the human heart, in all its frailty and strength. Can you share what prompted you to explore this as an idea in your work?
Thank you! I’ve already received some fantastic pre-launch feedback, and it’s exciting to see my words going out into the world again. 

The truth is that I made no plans at all to explore a particular theme for Scratched Enamel Heart. I realised I had a few stories unintentionally connected by a heart motif, and the collection grew organically around those. My work has always been centred on the vagaries of the human heart – the conflict between the struggle to connect and the need to escape, around themes of love and loss, of not quite belonging.

How long did it takes you to write the collection?
Most of these stories were written over a two-year period, although a few have been around a lot longer. A Longing for Clouds has been kicking around for almost ten years, and has been through many reincarnations. Maggie, the stubborn and recalcitrant protagonist, is one of my favourite characters!

What do you hope your readers will connect with and enjoy most about your collection?
Like all authors, I would like my stories to resonate with people, and to stay in their heads after they’ve closed the book. Reviewers consistently make the comment that my writing demonstrates great empathy, which I consider a fantastic compliment. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing readers say they were deeply moved by one of my stories, that they want to know what happens after a story ends, or they were rooting for a character in a perilous situation. To know you’ve made someone care about your characters as though they were real people is just lovely. That’s my job done!

“Her characters live, breathe and grow, and reading them, we do too.” Judy Darley

Between them, your collection’s characters experience an expansive range of emotions. Did you find the writing process emotional personally?
I do find the process emotional; never more so than in the stories which are loosely based on incidents or experiences from my own life. These tend to be few and far between, however there are a couple in this collection. No Doubt is one of them, and the last story, This Final Perfect Thing, which is based on losing my own mother. I can’t read either of them aloud without crying, and both of these stories have reduced readers to tears too.

You were a finalist for the Costa Short Story Award in the Costa Book Awards 2018; what is it you love most about writing in the short story format? What does it offer readers that novels cannot?
Short stories are perfectly suited to the pace of the twenty-first century, and as a reader you can dip in and out, returning to certain stories time after time as you would with a poetry collection. I know some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel, yet a cracking short story will leave you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it.

Writing short stories is both a challenge and a joy. It’s an opportunity to try and create something as perfect as it can possibly be. When you have a limited number of words, your language needs to be specific, concise, sparing, lean. When you impose restrictions it can result in something surprising. I have read short fiction which has made me cry in the space of a few minutes, that has made me hold my breath until I reached the end.

What isn’t said is as important as what is, and I have a favourite Hemingway quote that sums it up perfectly: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things… and the reader… will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” 

Which authors inspire you most?
One of my favourite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro. I love all his work, but The Remains of the Day is the book I wish had my name on the cover. I’ve loved it since first reading it in the 1980s. A beautifully written story of a life lost to duty; unsentimental and utterly heartbreaking. 

I’m enjoying discovering a number of new new writers at the moment, and the book I’m currently reading is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Disapin. It is a haunting and immersive tale set in the bleak seaside town of Sokcho on the North/South Korean border, and tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a hotel receptionist and an unexpected guest.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a keen short story reader too. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Alison Moore, Miranda July, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.

I’m also a huge admirer of Japanese literature. The sparing and effective use of language, the subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all require Japanese fiction to be read slowly, to be re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of quiet yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. One of my favourite Japanese writers is Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society. Her novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is an all time favourite, and another highly-recommended contemporary Japanese novel is Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, a quiet and tender love story of the friendship formed between a Tokyo woman in her late thirties and her old high school teacher.

Do you find that you’re inspired by movies and TV shows, as well as written fiction – if so, which come to mind?
I don’t watch a great deal of TV, however I am a big fan of world cinema – especially Japanese films. I’m particularly inspired by the domestic dramas made in the 1950s by Yasujiro Ozu. His films are poignant, poetic, and deceptively simple, and I love the elemental humanity of his work. He evokes a strong sense of the melancholy in everyday life, and the films all unfold at a contemplative, considered pace. 

When you’re reading whether that’s novels, short fiction or flash what is it that makes you fall in love with a story, and want to keep on reading?
I love stories with a strong sense of place, where the location is integral to the story and influences the behaviour of the characters and the choices they make. Strong characters and beautiful language are more important to me than plot – I don’t need a lot to happen. I like to feel slightly unsettled by a book, to feel that things are a little off-kilter and not as they first appear.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To get as much work out there as possible. When the rejections come they don’t sting as much as they would if you were pinning all your hopes on one submission.

Thanks, Amanda! To find out more about Amanda and her work, check out the links below…


Twitter: @troutiemcfish

Author interview: Ross Jeffery

Our latest interview is with Ross Jeffery, following the launch of his post-apocalyptic novel Juniper. Ross is the Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine, and has been published in print and online by STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival and many more.

Receiving impressive reviews across Amazon and Goodreads, Juniper was also well-received by Retreat West’s founder Amanda Saint. She commented: ‘Juniper is a creepy, sinister read with strong women, who just want to give love and be loved in return, at the heart of it. Despite the sorry state of the town where it’s set, and the people living in it, there are some laugh-out-loud moments alongside the more macabre ones. The writing is visceral and sharp and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.’

We enjoyed catching up with Ross to discuss his work, explore his love of the horror genre and learn more about his approach to writing in general — including the best writing advice he’s ever received, and what he believes makes a great story. 

Congratulations on the launch of your novel, Juniper. Could you tell us a little about Juniper and the world in which it’s set?
Juniper is set in a pissent little fictional town in Southern America — a place that’s hanging onto the world like a festering wound. The town is facing an apocalyptic drought which could spell the end of life as they know it. The town is populated by what remains, the lowest of the low, struggling for survival in this apocalyptic wasteland — where food is scarce and water is like gold dust. 

There is one woman though, Betty, who is a born survivor, an outlander who survives by eating the various slim pickings of roadkill. Another woman called Janet in the face of adversity has conjured up a new cattle for the town to survive on: large interbred cats which roam the town, and which are then slaughtered to feed the empty stomachs of the grumbling townsfolk. Janet’s ex-con and abusive husband Klein is against the idea, but as the money and bartered resources keep flowing in he turns a blind eye to the proceedings. Life takes on a new type of normal until Janet’s prized ginger tom, Bucky, goes missing — but Betty finds something half-dead by the side of the road, and decides to take it home. 

A post-apocalyptic horror, your writing in Juniper has been compared to that of Stephen King. Have you always been drawn to writing (and reading) about the dark and grotesque?
I’ve always loved the dark and grotesque — if you speak to my mother, she’d say that she was responsible for the whole thing. She said that when she was pregnant with me that she was reading Pet Sematary by Stephen King, and that my love of horror and the macabre came from there (she might be right?).

I’m honestly blown away by the comparisons to King because to me he’s a huge role model, and I’m just astounded that people think my writing is reminiscent of his work (people have also said my work reminds them of Palahniuk, Ballard, McCarthy and a whole host of other great writers whom I adore). But with all these comparisons I’ve tried to do something new, and people have seen that and appreciated it — making the horrific things poetic and believable. I’m a fan of the dark and grotesque, but I always try to have a reasoning for the dark and disturbing; I don’t write for shock value. I try to ground my characters and my stories in hope and fear — things that we can relate to on numerous levels. If you were to look at my bookshelves you’d see all of these writers — I like the gritty realism of McCarthy, Bukowski and Selby Jr, but I also love the horror of King, Herbert and Blatty. I’m a voracious reader, but the dark and the grotesque is what I love to consume most of all.

Why do you think we, as readers, enjoy being brought into fictional worlds that can shock, scare or challenge us in some way?
I think, as humans, we all have a sense of fear and shock drilled into us from day one. As babies, we’re subjected to people saying ‘boo’ to us, hiding behind hands and then peering out from behind them and shouting ‘boo’ — how cruel are we? It’s something I feel that everyone can relate to in some way: that feeling of being scared.

I also believe that when reading a book, the reader’s mind projects its own fears into the text, making whatever written darkness that they are reading or facing that much more disturbing. It might take different forms for each of us, but we’re all scared of something: whether that be killer clowns, rats, the dark, enclosed spaces, loss, sickness, or things that go bump in the night. To each of us, these fears are very real.

Each person has a fear, and I think we get some satisfaction from facing those fears from time to time. It’s a sick game but I think, within books, we can get away with confronting these fears better than if they were happening in real life — because it’s fictional, right? You can close the book at any time and just walk away. It’s a safe place to encounter your nightmares. And if it gets too bad, you can always do what Joey does in Friends and stick the book in the freezer!

Juniper is the first in a trilogy: can you share how far along you are with writing the next two in the series? Any hints as to what we can expect in books two and three?
That’s right, Juniper is book one in a trilogy of books — but I’ve written these books in such a way that each one stands alone. But the real joy of the series is that, if you read them all, you can see recurring characters pop up from time to time. Things that happen in one book have an echo in the others. It’s the town of Juniper that is the focal character in these books — and what a character it is.

Book two, which is called Tome (due for release in October this year 2020 by The Writing Collective), takes place about fifteen years before Juniper. It’s set in the dilapidated Juniper Correctional Facility, where there is a strange evil lurking and the suicide rate has increased. Book three, I’m yet to write. I’ve a bundle of notes for this one, and it’s set sixteen years after Juniper (where the protagonist is the unborn baby mentioned briefly in Juniper). This book will be called Scorched.

Juniper is my Castle Rock — I’m sure other tales may spew forth from this place in the future, but at the moment it’s a trilogy. I guess I’ll need to see if readers are craving more from my little atrocity!

Can you remember a moment of inspiration that sparked your idea for the trilogy, or did the concept for the story come to you gradually?
The original seed for this story came to me about twenty one years ago when I was at university, and I’d seen a short film someone had created for our Video Production course. It was of a lonely old lady who befriended a student and invited him in to live with her, then began to treat him like her pet. The story has never really left me and a few years ago, I started planning to write it as a short story. But when I started, I couldn’t stop — I’d built this character Betty, and I felt that she deserved a larger part in something. So I developed the world she lived in, which became Juniper, and then it just snowballed really.

Juniper is more of a novella, and I feel that the space I’ve afforded the story really works. Some reviewers have said they wanted more, but I guess that’s why I have expanded this universe with Tome and then Scorched. I like to draw and plan my work — and with this trilogy, I’ve had to do that more than ever. I need to ensure that the threads I’ve woven through the whole series work, and that each one adds to the canon of work.

You’re also launching a novella-in-flash in June: can you tell us a little about it?
My novella-in-flash, Tethered, is something that I am self-publishing in June 2020. I attended the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol in 2019, and went to a workshop with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins about the novella-in-flash. After attending the workshop, I realised that this artform was a great way to incorporate many stories that I had been working on.

Tethered is a story about a father and son; a fractured relationship that covers the themes of toxic masculinity, hope, love, gender, domestic violence, being a father, being a son and the quest to survive. I’ve had some fabulous feedback already from writers I approached to blurb, with comparisons being drawn with the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlisted author Bryan Washington for his book Lot, and Justin Torres author of We the Animals. Many others have said that it’s refreshing to see a story that shows an intimate portrait of the father-son dynamic, as it’s often not seen in such honest detail. It’s the most honest writing I have produced, and is very different to the writing of Juniper. It’s currently on digital pre-order on Amazon, and paperback copies will be available on the 1st of June (which is the release date). 

Whether you’re writing a novel, flash or fiction in any other format, what do you think makes a great story?
I think what makes a great story are things that are grounded in life and circumstance; things that people can relate to, no matter their walk of life. I also think that when you write with unabashed honesty, leaving some fragment of yourself on the page, that’s when great things can happen. My best works are when I write from the heart, and try not to force things.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Sit your ass in the chair! (This might be from Stephen King.) It’s quite a simple thing, really. But if you don’t sit down to write, you’re never going to do it. So when I don’t feel like writing, when I’d rather be doing something else, or when my stories have got away from me, sometimes you’ve just got to sit in the chair and write. Write your way out of, or through, your current mood… it works!

Another one which I think I got from Steinbeck was to not edit your work as you go. Instead, sit down and write it from start to finish — at least that way you can say you’ve completed a book, a story or a flash, instead of having to say ‘I’m still writing a book’, etc. Since taking this advice on board, my output has been greatly increased… It’s definitely one to try! 

Thanks, Ross! To find out more about Ross and his work, check out the links below…

Writing Collective Page for Juniper:


Twitter: @Ross1982

Writing an Award Winning Novella-in-Flash

Somewhere between the linear narrative and the post-postmodern fracturing of narrative, there might be a third way, dependent on its brevity as its primary descriptor… Rusty Barnes

As we know, the short form is a great medium to experiment with as it has the art of brevity and flexibility on its side. What might become insistent or annoying in longer forms – multiple perspectives, unusual point-of-view, poetic language – in small doses can be refreshing and entertaining.  Techniques such as collage, association, counterpointing are all devices that really come into their own when putting together a novella-in-flash and I think the opening of Meg Pokrass’s essay in The Rose Metal Press publication (2014) My Very End of the Universe focusing on the study of the form is excellent in illustrating the process of writing in this genre:

‘If you ask an artist who creates crazy quilts how they come up with their designs, that artist will likely tell you that each finished project originates from an emotional place. Each quilt is different because it is made of many found scraps and pieces of cloth in different sizes with no regular colour or pattern—the sleeves of an old work shirt, perhaps, or the skirt of a wedding dress. Similarly, the writing of a novella-in-flash involves working with flash fiction fragments and stories by linking them together to form a layered, narrative arc. Working in both art forms demands an improvisational spirit. regarding the creation of both content and structure. A novella-in-flash writer and a crazy quilt artist both become familiar with navigating incompletion and juxtaposition. Both art forms involve delving into the most unlikely places and finding pieces which, when put together, create an untraditional whole’.


Meg talks about reviving and re-visioning narratives that were gathering dust in a ‘metaphorical scrap bag’ and this seems to be something that many novella-in-flash-writers start out doing – taking pieces that haven’t worked out on their own and finding that they were all along, part of a bigger picture. Moral of this – never throw any writing away! In my case, I started out with a clear plan of what I wanted to do but thought it would be a simple short story about a stonemason who fell off a church steeple and the consequences of this accident for his family. This was a true story about my neighbour and I quickly wrote myself into a corner with it, due perhaps to trying to cling to the biographical details which is always a risk.

When we try to stay ‘true’ to the facts we tend to not see what the story needs. Luckily Flash was there to help me. As an exercise, I stepped out of his narrative arc and imagined all the other people involved, collating little stories about them and experimenting with point of view. It soon came to light that the story wasn’t about the father, but the daughter and interestingly although she became the protagonist, the story arc changed depending on what flash was placed next to another flash.

This idea of juxtaposition is interesting and I soon learnt that in a work of art everything is laden with affect, and whenever you put two of anything together, a third thing emerges. Importantly, the things that logic would normally try to keep separate the writer brings together. It is very liberating to work in this way and was a sort of epiphany for me. It is my belief that there are two components necessary for our growth as writers. The first is our ability to access the unconscious, and the second is our willingness to take risks. Risk taking and experimentation allow us to bring something fresh to our practice, preventing us writing the same thing over and over again – pushing the boundaries of our craft and the richness of our stories.

So here is a little exercise you can do to try out your novella-in-flash muscles and to give you an idea of how fun it can be to make a patchwork flash. I can’t take credit for it – this is an exercise created by that great Flash Maker, Randall Brown.


Preparing for Counterpointed Flash


  1. Take the structure – A-B-A-B-A-B Choose how many short pieces you want. Here I suggest 6 each of 250 words.
  2. A (one thing) / B (another thing)
  3. Options are unlimited for As and Bs
  4. A is fiction; B is nonfiction (or vice-versa); both are fiction/cnf; parallel events; and so on.
  5. Dissimilarity adds tension (how will these two things ever come together is a question that will raise expectation for the reader)

Try this:

  1. Images/words from A begin to seep into B, more and more
  2. The final section might be AB
  3. Where this juxtaposition of A/B leads us becomes “shattering”
  4. We would not have arrived there with A alone or B alone
  5. A surprising, profound meaning has been figured out by the end.


Join Amanda and myself for a weekend of interactive, supportive flash writing on the Flash Weekender from April 17th -19th. Then we have a 2 weekend Memoir-in-Flash course from May 8th – 10th and May 15th – 17th. We then have a month of wonderful prompts for the whole of June in our first Micro Fiction Month!

Mary-Jane Holmes has work included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Her microfiction has recently been included in Best Microfictions 2020. A twice nominated Forward Prize nominee and Hawthornden Fellow, Mary-Jane has won The Bath Novella-in-Flash Prize 2020, the Bridport, Martin Starkie, Dromineer, Reflex Fiction and Mslexia Flash Fiction prize, plus the  International Bedford Poetry competition.

She has been shortlisted and commended for many more including the Beverley International Prize for Literature 2020, The Troubadour and Oxford Brookes Poetry prize 2019. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize in 2020. Mary-Jane’s debut poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. She enjoys teaching creative writing both online and in person (when possible) around the world. She holds an Mst (distinction) in Creative Writing from Kellogg College Oxford and is currently working on a PhD at Newcastle University. @emjayinthedale