Author Susmita Bhattacharya discusses short fiction writing

Short fiction can be a great proving ground to test your writing skills and try out new ideas. Here, author and course tutor Susmita Bhattacharya explores why she enjoys short fiction, the link between writing and politics and who should beta-read your work.

Susmita Bhattacharya
Susmita Bhattacharya

How I started

Yes, it might be a cliché, but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. However, I started writing seriously – with publication in mind – in the early 2000s. I started off by writing travel memoirs for publication, and then in 2004 I joined a course similar to Professional Writing Academy’s Beginners’ Fiction, but not online. I got great feedback, so I did an MA in Creative Writing and it all started from there.

Gauging interest in your work

The first and most important thing about writing is to write for yourself – not to cater to anyone else’s tastes. You can be sure that you’re being true to yourself and of how you feel about what you write, but readers are very subjective. Those who enjoy your style will read, and those who don’t won’t.

It can’t be universal, in my opinion, so the only thing you can do is write for yourself and make your work the best it can be.

Short fiction vs. novel writing

The two forms require very different skills, and are separate art forms in their own right. I’m personally drawn to short fiction more because I like reading them more than novels, but I think they can be more difficult to craft well because you only have so many words to convey the story in.

Writing short fiction stories can also be a great preparation to write novels – you can finish one quicker than a novel, yet it still needs to have all the elements of craft to successfully create a narrative.

When it comes to getting your stories published, short fiction has more potential as there are so many places to submit to — a great way for an author to build a reputation.

While a lot of my writing may spark off from a personal experience, the story usually grows into something that has nothing to do with that initial germ of an idea. It takes off and becomes something else altogether

– Susmita Bhattacharya

Writing from experience

When writing fiction I draw a lot from personal experience. However, it hasn’t always been that way. When I was starting out I didn’t think I could do that, and I used to try and write about things I didn’t have much knowledge about. Unfortunately, they often failed miserably!

Saying that, while a lot of my writing may spark off from a personal experience, the story usually grows into something that has nothing to do with that initial germ of an idea. It takes off and becomes something else altogether.

For example, my story Comfort Food is set in Singapore and a woman accompanies her husband to a business dinner with a client. I once went along with my husband for a similar dinner in Singapore. And it was just that – the plot came much later in my head, but I used that as the starting point, and I eventually went in a very different direction in the final story.

Writers should be careful when creating characters from real life, though. You can draw from them, but make sure to change enough of their characteristics so that they won’t recognise themselves.

For example, in my novel I had a character who is a photographer. I based that character on a photographer I had worked with – mostly the situations they got into – but his personality was made up. So, if he did ever read the book, he would probably recognise some of the situations, but he’d never say that character was him!

However, while it’s bound to be a great experience, writers need to weigh up their individual needs to consider if an MA would be the best way to spend their time and money.

Choosing an MA

This is an interesting question, and many writers may think that an MA is the golden ticket to ‘making it’. If I’m honest, I did my MA because it had a teaching element to it. I could teach creative writing after getting that degree, so that was why I did it.

It was absolutely the best experience I’d ever had. I learnt so much about the craft, gained the confidence to write and send stuff out, and the connections I made during the course were invaluable – I’m still in touch with them and we have worked on projects together.

However, while it’s bound to be a great experience, writers need to weigh up their individual needs to consider if an MA would be the best way to spend their time and money. Online course providers like Professional Writing Academy and Faber Academy are a great alternative if you want top-quality education and more flexibility.

When I start out, no one reads my stories – they’re all mine! After that, a friend from my MA course reads them, and we exchange work and give feedback to each other

– Susmita Bhattacharya

Making a stand – writing and politics

It’s often argued that literature has to have a ‘message’ or political undertones. While it’s a powerful form to make statements and put your point across in, not doing so doesn’t negate the artistry of your work. There are plenty of things to explore that are compelling – relationships, family, history, love – and all of these bring flavour to the story.

Finding beta readers

When I start out, no one reads my stories – they’re all mine! After that, a friend from my MA course reads them, and we exchange work and give feedback to each other. Those MA workshopping sessions were invaluable, and I’m glad that this relationship has continued.

When I finished my most recent novel, a couple of my MA friends and my husband read my novel manuscript. However, now I belong to a writing group and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s really great to have those meetings once a month and to read other writers’ works in progress and get feedback for mine as well.

I had a rejection yesterday for a story I really believe in, and it’s the third rejection for it. I was gutted – but that’s okay

– Susmita Bhattacharya

Staying motivated

It can be so easy to become discouraged and even give up on your writing, especially when you’re at the stage of finding agents and getting rejected. I gave up on my novel, and it took me 8 years to really get back to it and finish it.

On that note, I had no big dreams of getting published when I started writing in earnest. I had nothing to lose, so I sent drafts out quite rashly. Rejections didn’t bother me so much then because I wasn’t in that space – I had a baby to look after and that was more important – so I took it in my stride.

But slowly, when my stories developed, I took my writing more seriously and paid attention to it more. That gradually built my confidence in myself as a writer.

Even still, though, I get rejections and it can knock you – I had a rejection yesterday for a story I really believe in, and it’s the third rejection for it. I was gutted – but that’s okay. I’ll send to some other places I’ve looked up now, and hopefully someone will be interested. You have to stay positive and, above all, believe in yourself as a writer, no matter who rejects you.

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Meet your Tutor

Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita has been a professional writer and teacher since 2005.

She won the Winchester Writer’s Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4.

Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and was serialised on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Currently, she is working on her second novel. She lectures in Contemporary Fiction on the Masters Programme at Winchester University, facilitates writing for young people at the Mayflower Young Writers workshops (an ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project.

She also leads workshops at festivals, guest lectures at universities and has judged many short story competitions. She was writer-in-residence for The Word Factory, London in 2021.

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