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.

Mary-Jane Holmes joins the Retreat West team

We’re very excited to welcome Mary-Jane Holmes to the Retreat West team.

Mary-Jane is an award-winning prose and poetry writer. As well as working with Retreat West she is also chief editor at Fish Publishing, Ireland; consulting editor at The Well Review poetry journal based in Cork; a guest editor at V. Press; and creative director at the Casa Ana Writing Retreat in Granada, Spain.

In recent years she has won the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize, the Martin Starkie Poetry Prize, the Bedford International Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Flash Fiction Prize. Her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass, was published in 2018 by Pindrop Press to wide acclaim.

Mary-Jane’s work has been published in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018, Mslexia, Reflex Fiction, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, The Tishman Review, The Lonely Crowd and Firewords Quarterly. She holds a first class honours Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford, and is embarking on a PhD in poetry and translation at Newcastle university. Her supervisors are Sinéad Morrissey and Tara Bergin.

Later this year, Mary-Jane and I will launch a new Flash Weekender online course that we have designed together (bookings open later this month for the first Autumn weekend) before hosting live flash workshops together from 2020 in various locations around the UK. Plus lots of other exciting co-projects that are in development.

Mary-Jane is also designing a new online memoir-in-flash writing course for Retreat West and more info will be available on that soon…

Interview with Sarah Manning, judge of 2019 First Chapter comp

Interview with Sarah Manning, judge of 2019 First Chapter comp

 
Today, we welcome literary agent at The Bent Agency, Sarah Manning. Sarah started out as an assistant to Juliet Mushens at United Agents before becoming an agent to develop the adult fiction list at the Bent Agency’s UK office. Her taste is varied and she’s looking for commercial and accessible literary adult fiction, YA and nonfiction, including uplifting women’s fiction in the reading group space as well as love stories that make her cry. She represents high-concept thrillers and crime books full of twists and turns with interesting settings and speculative fiction – but nothing that feels too unrecognisable from our own world. Sarah is our judge for the 2019 First Chapter Competition which is currently open (!) for submissions.
 

Thanks for coming on the blog, Sarah. When you receive a 3 chapter submission, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?

Really this is a combination of two things! Firstly, an interesting commercial concept so I can already start to see where it sits on a shelf is very important and goes a long way to me wanting to read more to see how the story develops. Most crucial of all though, and can trump my first point if that’s not quite there yet, is the tone of voice. Plot points can be edited, and in some instances I’ve even called writers up and said I think their writing is excellent but that they have gone about telling the story the wrong way, and they’ve then gone on to become clients and secure book deals. However, it’s much harder to teach someone to write — it’s that natural voice that I’m really looking for and is at the heart of an excellent submission. If it transports me and I fully believe in the characters depicted, and can visualise the scenes they are depicting clearly and authentically, then generally I’m interested in seeing how the story progresses.

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 a very hard question to answer as frustratingly the business is subjective by nature and that ‘love’ is the experience you have as a reader. If I were to try and break it down, I think that a unique voice that really has its own sense of self is really important to me — lots of submissions are well-written but they ‘sound’ the same and as such the characters feel too generic. I don’t mean I want crazy off-the-wall voices, but a natural tone of voice that has personality and gets under the skin of the characters is very exciting to find. I also like a strong sense of pace, though never at the expense of character. If I have to work hard to keep on turning the pages I’ll stop! So a good idea of what the book is about and what we are reading to find out can make a real difference. This doesn’t just apply to crime or thrillers and some really good examples of stories I’ve enjoyed where I also haven’t been able to stop turning the pages in other genres are The Rosie Project and You, Me Everything. I think this is because they were characters I just could not bear to leave.

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

A sense of character and a good balance between show and tell. There’s a fine line between ‘good confusion’ and ‘bad confusion’ and you want to lure us in with intrigue but not being too abstract that we don’t engage at all because we feel too lost. I need to be upset when the chapter ends, desperate to read on. What is it about that chapter that’s going to make me feel like the story continues in a way I just can’t miss out on? Try to think about where you are starting to tell your story to make the most of that first chapter, so something important to note here is that we don’t need every waking moment of our character’s day (so no waking up to alarm clocks please!). My advice is always to enter a scene late and leave it early.

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

I’m open to anything that I fall in love with! Generally that is in the commercial to book club/reading group space and covers crime and thrillers, family drama, women’s fiction, young adult and non-fiction. I’d love to find a layered romantic comedy in the vein of The Notes and The Flat Share. I’m also looking for something which is richly atmospheric with a gorgeous setting in the vein of Fanny Blake and Santa Montefiore. I’m also on the lookout for more uplifting fiction which has a great quirky cast of characters and real depth and heart to it at the same time; something that would sit perfectly in the reading group space. I’d love a new historical fiction but more on the family secrets of the time rather than battle-led narratives. In terms of YA, I’m looking for contemporary issue-led stories with really relatable characters. In answer to the type of writer I’m looking for, anyone and everyone as long as you’re excited to work collaboratively and open to editorial ideas — you’ll get these from me but also an editor (fingers crossed!) further down the line and it can be quite a change from working alone before you are signed by an agent!

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

So many it’s difficult to list just a few! Ok here it goes; Liane Moriarty, Holly Bourne, Michael Connelly, Jodi Picoult, Stef Penny, Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, M.J Arlidge, Sophie Kinsella… The list goes on!

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Thanks, Sarah! Lots of great advice there, especially for anyone entering next year’s comp!
 
You can keep up with Sarah on her Twitter page:
 

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.