Author Interview with Sarah Hegarty

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Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel and is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.

 

1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?

It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.

2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?

I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.

I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.

3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?

Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.

4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?

It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.

5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?

Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.

6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?

I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.

For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.

7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?

Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain:  a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.

The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.

8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?

It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk  The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!

9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?

I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.

10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting.  I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!

I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.

You can find Sarah at sarahhegarty.co.uk or @SarahHegarty1

 

 

Why Bother With Social Media?

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Social Media: A phrase that strikes up a series of emotions in each one of us. Some people enjoy using social media sites, thriving on the information they can gather and the contact with others, while others avoid it through fear or a lack of time or motivation. Many people have a love/hate relationship with it. Why does it cause so much consternation, when the aim has always been to connect and to share information? Each site takes time to navigate and to get used to, much like a new relationship or friendship in some ways! At first you post and respond to others, gradually gaining the confidence and understanding of how it all works. Each site has a different character and set of expectations. You step up your communication, post, wait, wonder. Sound familiar?

The earliest forms of social media were not electronic, but took the form of cave paintings. These were the earliest known signs of humans trying to communicate, to leave their mark. Now, we leave our mark, our knowledge and some of our personality, on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr or other blogging sites. We strike up connections with others and share information, often collaborating in a way that would have been difficult before the age of social media.

So, why take the time to engage with social media?

1. You meet an amazing range of people, both within and outside your field of expertise.

I have met some fantastic readers, writers, bloggers, editors, agents, marketing experts. Meeting people within the fields of writing and publishing have helped me to learn about the industry. Other authors have been a great encouragement to me along the way (which is something we all need). Readers have contacted me through my website and found me on other social media platforms. If they enjoy your work and like who you are as a person, chances are they will want to engage and follow what you are up to. I have also gained a great deal from others outside this group. I follow journalists and people who are interested in some of the things I enjoy outside writing: music, art, travel and skiing.

2. Sharing resources

The online community are a generous bunch! I find that people share information on writing competitions, tips on writing and publishing (both self-publishing and traditional publishing). It’s also a great way to find out about writing courses or retreats. I first heard about the Arvon Foundation through Twitter. They offer residential writing courses with a range of authors who teach specific courses throughout the year. Interviewing other authors on your blog and hosting posts is a good way of networking and sharing new work with your readers. You can also approach other bloggers and offer to write posts on their blogs (see my post on Optimising Facebook on 30 Day Books).

3. Finding books

Many people share books they have read and enjoyed. There are a few editors whose tastes are similar to mine and I almost always enjoy the books they suggest. Book bloggers are a great resource, reviewing books and giving honest opinions on popular or recent books, and often on classics I might have missed. I also review books as well as hosting interviews and posting about writing. Literary salons and author events in bookshops are also advertised on social media sites. Don’t miss these if there is one near you.

4. It keeps you up to date with what is going on in the publishing industry.

Within the publishing industry I have learned a great deal from people like Jane Friedman (former publisher of Writer’s Digest, who writes about the future of the publishing and media industry), Porter Anderson (journalist and publishing consultant) and The Future Book, a blog founded by Sam Missingham (formerly working for The Bookseller Group). If you are interested in a traditional publishing deal, social media sites are a good way to find agents who might be a good fit for your work. Follow the #askagent hashtag on Twitter for agent tips and #MSWL for individual manuscript wish lists. If you are self-publishing, there is a plethora of blogs and sites with all the information you will need.

5. It helps to develop your writing skills on many levels.

Blogging is a good extension of your writing. I wrote a post on blogging with a list of resources. It helps you to learn how to engage readers and to put forward your ideas in an interesting way. This is particularly useful for non-fiction writers who might need evidence of a platform before approaching an agency, and to connect with readers of your particular subject area. As far as fiction is concerned, there has been advice not to write about writing, but I find that these posts have a high level of engagement and readers often write to tell me that these have been helpful. I would run with what works, what you enjoy and what helps others. Social media is an important place to be a helpful resource for others. If you use Twitter it will keep your writing to a succinct 140 characters! This can be a challenge if you tend to over-write or over-describe.

6. You are available for people to contact you and find out about your work.

I have deliberately left this point until last because promoting your work should not be your primary focus on social media. It is called ‘social’ media for the very reason that you interact with people respectfully and share your ideas. If you are interesting and thoughtful, and readers like your style, they will often then look into your work. But you would not sit in a cafe or a bar with a friend saying “Buy my book, buy my book.” So, don’t do it online. It is one of people’s greatest bugbears. Leave an option for people to sign up to your newsletters and to follow your blog posts. I promise you this is enough. No one likes a hard sell and if you treat social media with the same approach as a double glazing salesman, you’ll get the same response.

What are your thoughts on social media? Are there sites that you use more often and why? Are there some sites you haven’t yet got to grips with? Share your ideas. I’ll leave you with some interesting stats:

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Is Blogging Worth the Time and Effort?

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I have just received a second ‘Sunshine Award’ for my blog. Thank you to fminuzzi and to KirkyKoo for the earlier award. Both are much appreciated. It made me think about the naysayers who tell you that blogging is not worth the time and effort, especially if you write fiction. The argument goes that if you write non-fiction it is important to write about your topic and to build a following but that if you are writing fiction you are wasting your time, especially if you decide to write about the craft of writing itself.

Well, I beg to differ.

Firstly, I don’t just blog to build a following, to increase my social media platform, or to sell books or to raise my profile as a writer. These are words you’ll hear media savvy writers using but I’m not keen on them.

And here’s the thing…I blog because I love to write.

I love to write short stories, I love writing novels (despite the frustrations and the hours involved in creating carefully crafted sentences) and I really enjoy writing blog posts. My blog is an outlet for the hundreds of ideas that are sparked as I speak to people, or read other posts, or hear something that I want to comment on in more than just a thread.

Here’s the other thing (never use the word, ‘thing.’ It’s as good as using, ‘like,’ ‘just,’ or ‘somewhat.’ Don’t use those words)…

I blog because I like to connect with people, to link to articles and to provoke discussion.

I really appreciate the comments and feedback. Some of the suggestions from blog readers have been really helpful to me. I enjoy the engagement with you, my blog readers, and I appreciate the range of ideas. It is important to me that you are enjoying the posts and finding a nugget of useful new information.

Of all the social media sites (and there are many, too many to keep up with to any great extent) blogging is my favourite for it’s sheer freedom and for the more personal interaction with people. Anyone else with me on this?

Here’s the other thing… blogging gives you a blank canvas that (don’t use the word ‘that’ either) is shorter than a novel but long enough to express an idea succinctly, adding images, links and graphics if you wish.

I enjoy posts with images, videos, book trailers, statistics and links to other useful posts, either on the same blog or elsewhere on the web. Blogging is a great way to raise the profile of other bloggers, to share interviews or book reviews, to encourage others and to share useful information. I have purchased several books recently, purely because they have been mentioned on the blogs of people who I like and trust.

I read blogs written by book reviewers, publishing houses, photographers, travellers, self-published authors, marketing experts (despite their use of terms such as ‘platform,’ or ‘sales’). There is a huge range of topics. Some are highly specific, others are more general, but if you took blogging away from me there would be a dimension missing.

There are those who would argue that blogging takes up valuable writing time. Really? What do you do when you are not writing? Watch TV? Read? Go out? Well, I have an evening of writing ahead of me just because I am on a roll and because I have the time, but I wanted to write this post FIRST to say that blogging IS absolutely worth the time and effort. It is worth it because (and I run the risk of beginning to sound like a l’Oreal advert here) I enjoy the writing and because I learn so much from others.

Please, don’t let anyone stop you blogging if you enjoy it.  

Here is a list of brilliant blogs which I read regularly. They are by no means exhaustive, I do read many more, and blogs are about sharing so here you are:

Authors:

Mystery Writing is Murder

Marianne Wheelaghan

Tom Gething

Aliventures

Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Rebecca Bradley

Short story authors and links to journals/competitions:

Paul McVeigh

Tania Hershman

Book bloggers and author interviews:

Pam Reader

A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

Therapy Through Tolstoy

Strange Alliances

Literary agents:

Books and Such

Carly Watters

Industry news and general interest:

Brain Pickings

Writer Unboxed

Jane Friedman

Do drop by and let me know if you blog and what your gain from blogging, or add to the list of good blogs to share.

And have a lovely weekend.

How To Use Pinterest To Improve Your Writing

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When I write I have the scenes playing in my mind like a film scene and I need images for inspiration. Whether imagined or actual images, I need to ‘see’ the characters and the setting and buildings. I hit gold when I started to use pinterest as I am a highly visual person. I love art and photography, so this sight has an almost magnetic quality about it for a mind which soaks up the visual world.

I began using pinterest to ‘pin’ my ideas and create the atmosphere that I needed in order to write some of my scenes. I have added a clip of the board for Take Me the Castle to the beginning of this post but you can see the whole board here if you are interested.

You can also use scrivener, but I find pinterest quick and easy to use. There is a plethora of images already posted by others which you can search for, or you can pin your own images from any website by pasting the url, or add your own file.

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Why and how does this help?

Some writers use prompts or music to help them to write. Jane Friedman has written a good article on prompts and Roz Morris has a blog about how writers use music to build their stories. If you are a visual person a collection of images can spark new ideas or link a character’s responses to his or her environment. It can help to put you in the scene and to think about how the characters will respond to a cliff edge, or a towering building, or a dark room.

According to neurolearning, ‘brainstorming activities of visual thinkers may be more productive if right hemispheric strategies of brainstorming and organization (mindmapping, doodling, free association, analogies) are undertaken. In fiction writing, often the most powerful writers are good at plumbing the strengths of both the right and left hemispheres.’ As a qualified teacher I can attest to the fact that children who are visual thinkers and learners engage more readily when the right side of their brain is stimulated with images and free drawing and mapping. You might be interested to know that most writers are in fact right brained, they use the right side of their brain to engage creativity more than the left side.

I would encourage you to have a look at pinterest and try pinning some images. I also have a board with writing quotes and information and boards with portraits and travel, which help to get the ideas flowing. Let me know if you have any other ideas for visual inspiration.