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.

Volunteer role available – do you want to run our Twitter account?

After a brilliant year with us, sadly Emma can no longer run our Twitter account. We loved having her and will miss her and all her great ideas – she’s the brains behind the new Retreat West Awards and the Flashback Friday revisit of our older stories, among other things. Thanks for everything Emma – we’ll miss you!

So we now have a volunteer role available to take Emma’s place. As well as running the Twitter page, so you’ll need to Twitter savvy and love spending time there, you’ll also get to learn loads about writing through the great stuff we’ll give you in return!

You’ll need to:

  • Schedule and post Tweets to share our news and let people know about our community, our courses and our competitions.
  • Share other people’s Tweets from the writing community and our members’ news.
  • Start conversations and keep them going.
  • Respond to messages and replies.
  • Run the #retweetwest Wednesday hashtag to share positive news.
  • Choose stories to feature for #FlashbackFriday.

If you also want to suggest new ideas then we love hearing them!

In return for your help, you’ll get:

You’ll need to commit to doing the volunteer role for 12 months from when you start.

If this sounds good to you, then mail us at by 5pm on Friday 27th August 2021 letting us know why you’d like to do this and what you can bring to our team!

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:

New editorial services launched

We’re always getting lots of messages asking us for feedback on stories submitted for competitions and for critiques on novels, memoirs and short fiction collections.

So we’re excited to have launched our new Editorial Services today and have put together a fantastic team of professional editors who have experience across all genres who can help you take your work to the next level. You can also sign up for one-to-one mentoring to get in-depth, tailored advice, support and motivation as you write.

We’ve also now added the option to select feedback on all of our competitions at submission stage. Just choose the add-on in the Submittable entry and we’ll get back to you with feedback after the longlist has been announced if your story doesn’t go through. If you pay for a critique and your story goes on to win, you can use the critique to help you develop another story up to the same word count.

To celebrate the launch of the feedback services, one of our editors, Matt Kendrick, has kindly donated two free critiques on flash fictions up to 500 words. Email us by 5pm UK time on Friday 4th September to go in the draw to win one of these. We’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner.

We’re all really looking forward to helping you develop your work.

Announcing: new launches added to the Retreat West course collection

Looking for expert guidance to hone your writing skills during lockdown? You’ve come to the right place. We’re launching a range of brand-new courses, as well as celebrating our long-running favourites. Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out, our comprehensive courses are designed to help you take your fiction to the next level.

Explore the Retreat West course collection here, or take a look at what’s on offer below:

  • Find out how flash-fiction techniques can help you draft your novel with this free, one-week course: Develop Your Novel in a Flash.
  • Finding your feet with fiction, and looking to learn the basics of great storytelling? The new Fiction Fundamentals course is the one for you.
  • The ever-popular Fantastic Flashing course will polish your flash skills, and support you in writing your own complete collection of micro-fiction stories.
  • Get ready to upgrade your storytelling with the Flash Weekender, another firm favourite with students. It’s now available to start anytime ⁠— and will also still be running as a group course through the year, too.
  • Transform memories into beautiful memoir with the Flash Memoir course. It’s running as a group course, or you can choose the start-anytime solo option instead if you choose.
  • Jump into the Micro Fiction Month this June: it’s all about creating short, submission-ready stories.
  • Finally, announcing The Novel Creator: A Mentored Course. With one-to-one mentor guidance and in-depth modules exploring every aspect of novel writing, this year-long course has everything you need to complete a professionally edited manuscript. Applications are now open.

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