Interview with literary agent, Carrie Plitt, judge of 2020 First Chapter Comp

Interview with literary agent, Carrie Plitt, judge of 2020 First Chapter Comp

For today’s interview, we welcome Carrie Plitt. Carrie is a literary agent and also a director at Felicity Bryan, and we’re delighted to have her judging the 2020 First Chapter Comp. Carrie is actively building a list of authors, with a focus on debuts. The books she represents range from the very literary to those you might read in a book club. Besides excellent writing, she is often drawn to novels that have unique voices, are portraits of complex characters, examine relationships, are coming of age stories, or capture the zeitgeist. She is always on the look-out for writers from underrepresented backgrounds. Carrie hosts a monthly books podcast and radio show called Literary Friction, which has featured authors including Sally Rooney, Olivia Laing, Gary Younge, Viv Albertine, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ottessa Moshfegh.

So, Carrie, tell us, when you receive a 3 chapter submission, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?

For me it’s a mixture of an original voice – someone who really understands how to work with language and make it new – and a command of storytelling.

Writers repeatedly hear from agents they submit to that you like it but you didn’t love it enough, how does a MS make you love it when you have requested and read the whole thing?

This is such a difficult question to answer! I can see why this is so frustrating for writers – because in the end taste is so subjective. For me, the test of whether I LOVE something is: will I want to read this a number of times, and talk about it for years to come? If the answer is no, then I’m probably not the right agent for it.

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

Again, originality is key here. Does the writer have a particular way of expressing him or herself that seems different and exciting? But I will also be looking for the three chapters that make me desperate to read on.

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

I’m looking for literary fiction, book club fiction, and some literary crime. I love books that are psychologically complex and those that capture the zeitgeist. I think the list of authors below gives a good sense of the kind of thing I’m likely to love.

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

It’s very hard for me to pick favourites, but some authors whose work I read and enjoyed recently are Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, Deborah Levy, Jenny Offill, Esi Edugyan, Rachel Cusk, Tana French and Paul Murray.

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Thanks, Carrie! Some great insights there, and worth considering for writers hoping to impress in the 2020 First Chapter Comp!

You can follow Carrie on Twitter:

Jan Kaneen: Why Retreat West?

Why Retreat West?

As part of our week behind the scenes at Retreat West, today Jan Kaneen shares her journey from starting out, with a creative writing course way back in 2014, to her forthcoming debut memoir-in-flash. And thank you so much Jan! Your kind words about Retreat West are very much appreciated and make all the hard work worthwhile! Over to Jan.

I started creative writing in 2014 to help manage my anxiety. I found it really helped, and so enrolled on an Open University creative writing course to see where it would take me. The following year, armed with a distinction for my coursework and a bit more confidence, I started subbing, which is when I found Retreat West. I won one of their flash fiction comps and the positivity I felt was affirming and confidence-building.

In 2016, I enrolled on the OU’s two-year Creative Writing MA and one of the exercises was researching potential publishers for a work-in-progress, then drafting bespoke submission letters. Retreat West, by now, had established their publishing arm. I bought the wonderful Separated from the Sea, by Amanda Huggins, and Retreat West founder Amanda Saint’s brilliant, As if I Were a River, and felt a connection. I decided that if I ever did this for real, Retreat West would be top of my list.

In Spring 2018, the taught part of my MA was over, and I was worried my old anxiety would resurface, so by way of pre-empting trouble, I joined Retreat West writer’s community. As I polished the first 15k words of the novel I was writing for the final MA assessment, I found the weekly prompts excellent at providing regular inspiration for short blasts of non-MA writing, and the Facebook group a supportive background burble.

The MA deadline came and went, and as I waited for the result (due December 2018), I curated the hotchpotch of flash fictions I’d written over the previous four years. I was gobsmacked to realise they were themed and autobiographical. When the MA results were published and I’d gained a distinction, I gathered my courage, sequenced the themed flashes, entitled the resulting memoir-in-flash, The Naming of Bones, and entered it into Ellipse Magazine’s Flash Collection competition. It won second prize.

As part of the writer’s membership package at Retreat West, you get an e-copy of all their books, so by now, I’d read, admired and felt a writerly affinity with absolutely everything they’d published. I truly felt my quirky memoir that examines life, love, grief and growing-up through a surreal and lyrical filter, fitted. I submitted it and, six nail-biting weeks later, my strange tale had found its perfect home.

So you won’t be surprised when I say I love Retreat West – its ethos, the ethical way it does business, the opportunities it offers writers, the fun comps, the gorgeousness of the books. Next January I’m doing their Plot, People & Place writers retreat, the first retreat I’ve ever done. I’m hoping that with a bit of expert guidance and some time and space I can get the novel I started doing on the MA, back on track. I cannot wait. I love writing. More than love it. It’s necessary for my mental health and well-being, and my writing journey has been so enriched and enabled by my involvement with Retreat West. I couldn’t be more grateful. True story.

 

Jan Kaneen’s stories have won prizes in places like Scribble, InkTears, Molotov Cocktail, Horror Scribes and Retreat West. Her most recent stories can be found at Flashback Fiction, Ellipsis and Molotov Cocktail and her debut memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones will be published by Retreat West Books in 2021. She tweets @jankaneen1 and blogs.

The Retreat West story: running a creative business

Retreat West turned seven this year, and Retreat West Books turned two. When I first started out, I had no idea that running one-day writing retreats once a month in Exeter would lead to running several competitions, residential writing retreats, online courses, live workshops and an indie press. Recently, when Gaynor Jones started working with me and she asked about plans, I replied that I never made any. And beyond planning to start the one-day retreats, I haven’t ever made plans to do anything else. I just have ideas for things and everything that’s followed has happened organically.

I think this probably ties into the fact that as a writer I am a pantser rather than a plotter. In our life together, my husband and I have always been spontaneous and upping sticks at short notice to go off and experience life elsewhere. I used to think it was a bad thing and that I should be more organised, less impulsive, more business like, but I have come to accept myself for the way I am. First and foremost, everything I do at Retreat West stems from a love of writing and reading great fiction. I think to be too business like about it would kill something in that for me. So I am just going to carry on doing what I’ve always done. Which is having ideas, launching them and seeing what the response is. So far, that’s been working!

But it’s not something that I can make a living from so it fits around my day jobs: one as a freelance journalist and content writer specialised in environmental sustainability; and the other as a freelance editor and tutor with Jericho Writers. Doing this work enables me to invest in the books I’ve been publishing and keep running the competitions, which get just enough entries to cover the cost of paying the prizes and readers with a bit left over to pay for the running costs of the websites. I’m hoping that one day the competition entries will grow enough to have a little bit more left over after paying the running costs and that book sales will match the huge talents of the authors I’m working with.

I feel incredibly privileged to get to work with so many great writers and read so many brilliant stories. Everything I do at Retreat West has had a huge impact on my own writing too and it’s enabled me to develop my own skills as well as other people’s. Understanding what works in stories and what doesn’t, and why, has been one of the best things about it all. It’s helped me to be a better writer and to help other writers improve too. And that means more great stories to read for everyone, which, I believe, has to be the best judge of a creative business’s success.

So I hope you’ll carry on supporting what we do by entering our competitions, doing our courses, sending us your stories and buying our books. As without all of you, there’d be nothing for us to do! So thank you for being part of our writing and reading community. Here’s to another seven years (and hopefully more) of great stories.

 

Interview with Meg Pokrass, judge of 2019 RW Flash Fiction Prize

Interview with Meg Pokrass, judge of 2019 RW Flash Fiction Prize

For today’s interview, we welcome Meg Pokrass. Meg’s fifth collection of flash, ‘Alligators At Night’, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction (2018). Her fiction has been internationally anthologized, most recently in Best Small Fictions, 2018, Wigleaf Top 50, 2018, and two Norton Anthologies; New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015). Her stories have appeared in over 300 literary journals including Electric Literature, Tin House, Smokelong Quarterly and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She currently serves as Series Co-Editor of the Best Microfiction, 2019, Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, UK and Flash Fiction Challenge Editor, Mslexia Magazine. So we’re very lucky to have Meg judging for the 2019 RW Flash Fiction Prize which is currently open (!) for submissions.

Thanks for coming on the blog, Meg. What attracted you to writing flash fiction in the first place?

I wrote poetry through my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s. My poems were quite narrative, and for this reason, I had trouble getting them published. At some point, I experimented with removing the line breaks from my poems, and writing what I now call “connective tissue”. Turning them into stories. That’s how it started for me. The many years of focusing on compression and use of language (in writing poetry) seems to have been helpful to me as a flash fiction writer.

As an award-winning flash fiction writer, what’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the form?

Loaded Moment: Great flash fiction requires a feeling of dramatic urgency—something which we, the reader, sense in every word. Emotional potency is key.
Trust the Reader: The quickest way to lose a reader’s trust is to tell them what you mean. Anton Chekhov said it this way: “Don’t tell me that the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The Senses: The five senses are our best tools! Sensory detail is the key to making flash come alive. Try to bring a great deal of unique sensory detail into each story.
Read Poetry and Flash: Flash fiction isn’t narrative, it isn’t a “shorter short story”, therefore it’s hard to learn how to write flash by reading traditional length short fiction. Reading poetry and great flash fiction is a terrific way to learn the importance of specific detail, poetic language, metaphor, compression.
Something Subtle Must Change: Here is the one clear thing flash has in common with short stories! In great flash there is often a subtle pivot, a surprising juxtaposition, and the end often leaves the reader breathless rather than ‘completely satisfied’.
Unusual Details: Make characters out of obscure traits, for example, how do they greet their cat? What is their favourite film…and why?
Make it Itch: Dismay your characters, provide a good deal of trouble. Don’t let them get there easily, if at all.
Uncomfortable Childhood Nickname: One way to approach character is to make up a nickname that your main character had as a child and didn’t like. Don’t tell the reader what it is, and keep it in mind while writing your story.
Using Earlier Obsessions: Use your own obsessions and worries when creating characters and situations. Using your much earlier obsessions (having distance) is usually more productive than using current ones. With many years’ distance, there is perspective.
Sexy Elf Logic: If there’s an elf in your story, go ahead and make them sexy, but give him some issues. I mean, if you are a sexy elf, you’re going to come with some psychological baggage. No matter how fantastical a character is, make them real.
Woe Is Me: Readers don’t like characters who sit around feeling hurt by the world and wallowing in it. Instead, they care about characters who are finding ways to cope. We like to know how people get through life’s hardest moments.
Crisis/Advantage: When something very hard has happened in your life, use it. Let something similar happen to your character. Disguise it. Dismantle it. Here we can finally make use of the stuff that hurts. This will help your fiction.
Sex in Flash: A character’s unique relationship to sex is far more interesting than writing about lusty characters having sex all over the place. If there is sex in a story, don’t hit us over the head with it.
Messy Love: Follow the trail of messy love wherever it takes your characters, even if the love is invisible to the eye, and especially if it makes no sense.
The Ridiculous: Cultivate a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of the absurd. Everything that really matters to your character is also somewhat ridiculous when looked at from a different perspective. Don’t take yourself (or your characters) too seriously when writing fiction. Even in the most dramatic, dire circumstances. The human brain creates levity in order to cope. That’s what makes us interesting. Show us the coping mechanisms. Make the stakes high, but let a ray of humour shine through.

What kind of stories are you hoping to see when reading the shortlisted entries in the RW Flash Fiction Prize?

I’m looking for quirky original stories, stories that move me. I read a ton of flash fiction for my literary magazine (New Flash Fiction Review) and for the Best Microfiction 2020 anthology series I co-edit with Gary Fincke. What happens when one does so much reading: the brain gets tired! In a way this makes my job as a contest judge easy! I’m looking for stories that wake me up.

What will make a story stand out for you?

Humour, originality, pathos, use of illuminating detail, interesting sensory information. A character (or characters) who make me care.

Which flash fiction stories do you wish you’d written and why?

If I had to chose a few stories, like my Desert Island Discs, I’d say “Starfish”, “Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub,” or “Zoo” by Jeff Landon. “Pacific Radio Fire” or “The Weather in San Francisco” by Richard Brautigan. “Sweethearts” by Jayne Anne Phillips.

Which writers working in flash today do you admire and why?

I always return to the work of Jeff Landon, because there is simply nobody else who masters the art of funny and sad in flash like he does. His work is online in various magazines, look him up. Google him!

Amy Hempel, that’s a given! Aimee Bender, though she writes very little “flash”. I think of her longer short stories as bursts, like flashes sewn together. I study every word she writes. Angela Readman’s work is stunning. Sherrie Flick and Aimee Parkison, both of them are American writers. These are writers I really can’t get enough of!

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Thanks, Meg! You covered an impressive amount of ground there, I’m sure flashers will get a lot out of that, and certainly worth considering for writers hoping to impress in the 2019 RW Short Story Prize!

Find out more at megpokrass.com and follow Meg on Twitter:

Want to get free entry to this and other flash fiction comps? Check out our brand new Flash Fiction Memberships for benefits tailored to the flashing enthusiast.

Interview with Angela Readman, judge of 2019 RW Short Story Prize

Interview with Angela Readman, judge of 2019 RW Short Story Prize

A big welcome to Angela Readman for today’s interview! Angela is a twice shortlisted winner of the Costa Short Story Award. Her stories have won the National Flash Fiction Day Competition, The Mslexia Short Story Prize, and The Fish Short Memoir Prize. They have also been shortlisted in the Manchester Fiction Prize. Her debut story collection Don’t Try This at Home won The Rubery Book Prize and was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Angela’s debut novel, Something Like Breathing​, will be published by And Other Stories in 2019. Angela is our judge for the 2019 RW Short Story Prize which is open (!) for submissions.

Thanks for coming on the blog, Angela. What attracted you to writing short fiction in the first place?

I’ve always written stories, as soon as I could hold a pen. Silly things, funny stories, sad stories, strange little beasts. It’s something we’re all drawn to as children, I think, daydreaming, wondering what if…? If we’re lucky we never stop wondering. For me, short fiction is still that, it’s where the wonder is. That’s always been attractive to me, that wonder is what makes life wonderful.

As an award-winning short story writer yourself, what’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the form?

Read, read stories like you’re starving. Reading is often seen as a passive activity, but as writers we’re wide awake. We’re not looking for what to write about but getting a feel for the shape of the short story. How can a story start, what can stories leave out, what keeps us intrigued? Writers will always be drawn to our own subjects and fascinations, but where to start can stump us if we’re new to the form. Reading can be such an eye opener, it’s like getting permission to follow our peculiar hearts. The first time I read Etgar Keret I was like, ‘Wow, it’s Ok to write my strange little ideas? Who knew?’ Before that, most of my stories were just daydreams.

What kind of stories are you hoping to see when reading the shortlisted entries in the RW Short Story Prize?

It’s probably surprising, because my own stories tend to be strange, but I love all sorts of stories – realist, magical realist, funny stories, stories that feel like an ache. I read short stories almost every day and my favourites don’t share a genre. What they have in common is the ability to take me out of myself, look around, and when I come back, after the story is over, feel the world is a slightly different place. A place I understand a little more. A good story is like someone took a picture I thought I knew, coloured it different colours to and made everything much more vivid, like I’ve just woken up.

What will make a short story stand out for you?

I love fascinating characters, whether it’s Olive Kitteridge, or the couple in Murakami’s The Second Bakery Attack. These stories have little in common, but share an understanding that people are surprising. Olive Kitteridge seems like a dark character but has moments of unexpected vulnerability and kindness. The couple in The Second Bakery Attack seem like any ordinary couple, until we learn the wife has a ski mask, but has never been skiing. I think it was Lorrie Moore who said, ‘A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.’ She’s right. When I read stories with characters that breathe, it’s like falling in love. A good story is glorious, but brief, affair that lingers for years.

Which short story do you wish you’d written and why?

There are so many it’s hard to pick just one! I love Flannery O’ Connor, Raymond Carver- Cathedral, Why Don’t you Dance? and his story Fat. Fat is a story I keep coming back to, it’s deceptively simple, but fascinating. On the one hand, the story centres around a man ordering a meal at a restaurant and never seeming full. Yet I keep reading this story. It stays with me because of what we’re not told. We learn very little about the waitress and her life, yet it’s impossible to read the story and not consider her. That’s astounding. The story works like a lesson in empathy- I can’t read it without engaging with that waitress, she is so much more than her work, our fleeting impression. That’s fantastic writing. I defy anyone to read that story, go into a restaurant and not think about who works there.

Which writers working in the short form today do you admire and why?

Oh, so many. Aimee Bender, Murakami, George Saunders, Miranda July, A M Holmes, Claire Wigfall, Daisy Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Sarah Hall, Ken Elkes, Nuala O’Connor… I like writers that lure me into their world and keep me there. I don’t care what a story is about, or what style it is written in, but I admire stories that feel like I must keep reading or I’ll be missing out on something.

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Thanks, Angela! Excellent story and writer picks there, and great advice for short story writers and those entering the 2019 RW Short Story Prize!

Follow Angela on Twitter:

If you become a Retreat West Gold Author Member you can get entry to this competition included as part of your benefits package, as well as a whole host of other exciting stuff! Join here.

Guest post: Jonathan Pinnock – Arc of a Writer

Hello! For today’s guest post, we welcome Jonathan Pinnock, to talk about his third novel, ‘A Question of Trust’. Jonathan also provides some great insights into world-building, the story arc and writing a series.

Arc of a Writer – How to Create a Series

Be careful what you wish for. I wrote my second novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE, on the Creative Writing MA course at Bath Spa University. Towards the end of it, I began to realise that I wanted to continue writing about this bunch of characters who had emerged over the last year, so I changed the ending to make it clear that there was more to come.

So it was that, after a few hiccups, I ended up signing a contract with Farrago Books, who had been set up specifically to publish series of humorous novels. This was massively exciting for me, as I’d always wanted my own series. I think it was mainly the matching covers that I was after more than anything else.

But like I said, be careful what you wish for, because the contract that I had just signed effectively stated that I had around six months to write the sequel. It’s also worth bearing in mind at this point that I had absolutely no idea what the sequel was going to be about. All I had was a vague idea that at the beginning of the book, the main protagonist Tom’s girlfriend, Dorothy – who he’d finally got together with at the end of the first book – was going to disappear in suspicious circumstances, leading him to wonder who he could trust.

Fortunately, I’d just read a book about the strange, mad world of crypto-currency, and it struck me that this was a rich field to explore, if only I could find the right angle. Then I realised that the whole supposed point of Bitcoin and all the rest was to set up a banking system that no longer relied on trust, and suddenly I had a theme, and indeed a title: A QUESTION OF TRUST. I was beginning to get a feel for where it might be heading. But how was it going to fit into the series?

When you’re writing a series of related books, your main challenge is how you treat your readers. Do you insist on them reading the whole lot from Book One, or do you let them join at any point – always hoping that they’ll go back to the beginning, of course? I decided to make A QUESTION OF TRUST as standalone as possible, but I also wanted to reward readers of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE by giving them a sense of continuity and development. If there’s some kind of series story arc, however tenuous, it gives a sense of ownership which – I hope – engenders loyalty. This meant that I had to include the occasional quick recap of the events of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE for new joiners, although I don’t think they’re particularly intrusive, and to be honest, they probably serve as helpful reminders to the regulars.

As an example of what I mean by continuity and development, I saw a couple of opportunities to work on a couple of favourite minor characters from the first book. First of all, there was Ali, a feisty, sweary software developer who’d previously stolen every scene she was in. I really wanted to do more with her, and the absence of Dorothy gave me an opening, especially if I contrived to have her thrown together in a confined space with Tom, who she really, really hates. At the same time, I also thought it would be fun to get her into a relationship, just to watch her trying to play at being a nice person, so I made that happen as well.

The other character from the first book who became very useful was Tom’s hopeless ex-hippy father, who I realised would be exactly the kind of person who’d fall for crypto and get ripped off. This gave me the perfect route into the main storyline, although things inevitably turn out to be a whole load more complicated.

I also spotted an opportunity to do a bit of world-building. Now that’s something that people tend to associate with fantasy novels, but it applies to any type of novel or series of novels. (As an example, one of the best examples of world-building I’ve ever come across is in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir comic detective novels.) One of the features in the world of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was a group of internet conspiracy theorists called the Vavasorologists, who were obsessed with the lives and strange deaths of the Vavasor twins, the Archie and Pye of the title. In A QUESTION OF TRUST, we actually meet some of them at a Vavasorologist convention, with all the weirdness that entails.

So writing a series of books presents new challenges but also offers unexpected opportunities. On the one hand, you have to deal with the constraints of the story arc, but on the other hand, you have a collection of ready-made stuff you can use to build on and move forward. I’m now engrossed in writing the third book in the series, THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS and of course I’ve got material from two previous books to work with now. Writing a series is so much fun.

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Thanks, Jonathan! Interesting to see how ideas develop and expand beyond a single novel and which story threads get pursued.

About the author: Jonathan is the author of several books, including the novel MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS (Proxima, 2011), the short story collections DOT DASH (Salt, 2012) and DIP FLASH (Cultured Llama, 2018), the poetry collection LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF (Silhouette, 2017), but for the time being he’d most like to be known as the man behind Farrago Books’ Mathematical Mystery series of comic thrillers: THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE (2018), A QUESTION OF TRUST (2019) and THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS (TBA). His website contains loads of interesting and unexpected stuff and can be found at www.jonathanpinnock.com.