Write Advice: Mark McNay on his love of short fiction

Mark McNay
12 September 2016
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Award-winning author Mark McNay talks to our Faber Academy Beginners’ Fiction students about his love of short fiction, his working routine, and why taking a writing course can make a difference.

I think the fact I did a course helped me become a writer and complete a novel.

Mark McNay

Q – Hi Mark, it’s great to have you here. How did you get started as a writer? Can you walk us through how you moved from being an aspiring writer to a published author?

Mark McNay – No problem. I wrote some short fiction, then I went to the University of East Anglia to do an MA. I wrote a novel, I got an agent, and she sold the book!

Q – At what stage would you suggest an aspiring novelist should start making submissions? After a first draft? After their seventh?

MM – I read a story at a club in London, and an agent came to me after and asked me if I was working on a novel. I was impatient, and I sent her my second draft. Thankfully, she took me on. I would advise making it as good as you possibly can, because the one they read may be the only chance you’ll get.

Q – In a recent article Mark Haddon said that something magical seems to happen between versions 15 and 25. Is that the sort of number of edits you tend to do before you feel like your work is finished? If so, how do you stop yourself feeling completely sick of it half way through?

MM – I read somewhere that work isn’t finished – it’s abandoned. The difference between a good writer and a great writer is the amount of stamina they have to write drafts. I can’t do 25 I’m afraid, as I’m much too impatient, so I’ll never reach the heady heights of Mr Haddon!

Q – Do you think literary fiction is better than popular/commercial fiction?

MM – Better is a bit of a moral word. The best fiction, I think, has the elements of a good story, and at the same time is very well written in the level of the sentence. In my eyes, it’s a combination of the best of the literary and the commercial.

As to reading them, I do enjoy commercial at times, as it suits a purpose. If I’m in the mood and not too tired, I like a bit of something literary.

Write stories of around 2,000 – 5,000 words, and research competitions and literary magazines that you can send them to.

Mark McNay

Q – Do you think doing the MA at UEA was an important part of becoming a successful writer, or do you think you would have got there regardless?

MM – I think the fact I did a course helped me become a writer and complete a novel. UEA obviously helps you on the getting an agent to read you side of things, but it’s not a magic key. If the writing is awful, they won’t take you on. I did love it there though. I met some interesting people and had some great workshops.

Also, notice I said doing a course, not going to UEA. How have you found doing the Faber Academy Beginners’ Fiction course so far?

Q – I’m thrilled to be doing it. It’s got me reading again, and writing regularly.

MM – That’s how the MA helped me. A course will make you write, and practise is what we need. The more the better.

Q – Also, the technical advice is great, and most of it new to me. Having a great group of people for feedback and support has been a revelation, and it’s useful to get pointers to resources on the internet that I would never have found otherwise. Also, I’m more aware of how I present my work.

MM – It’s always good to swap reading lists with your fellow writers, and being aware of your reader is essential. The amount of work I’ve read by young men at university who don’t want to worry about the reader makes me want to cry. I keep telling them it’s about communication, and one day they may listen…

Q – How do you consider the reader, when writing?

MM – I think considering the reader is something I do in the second draft. I make the work clearer and easier to understand, and I think of the figures and how they provide meaning. Most of all, though, I think of clarity.

Q – Could you pick one author or even a book which inspired you to become a writer?

MM – It would be Bukowski, and Irvine Welsh. They showed me that my experience and background was worth writing about.

Q – What advice would you give for approaching literary agents and publishers?

MM – First and foremost, make your work as good as you can make it. There are no second chances with these people. Then, consider who you’re sending it to. Approach people who publish work like yours. There’s no point in sending a package to someone who isn’t interested in your subject, or form, or genre.

Look the agents up on the web, see who they represent, and what kind of stuff. Alternatively, you could Google a writer whose work is similar to yours and see who represents them.

When you submit, send a covering letter, a synopsis and three chapters. Use twelve point font and double space your writing. This is important. Showing that you care about things like this demonstrates that you care about your work.

  • Turn your stories into ideas
  • Work in small groups
  • Take your writing to the next level
Getting Started: Beginners' Fiction

Black and white photo of a pair of broken traffic bollards

Q – Do you think new writers should focus on short fiction first and graduate to writing novels, or does it not really matter either way?

MM – Sometimes short fiction is a good training ground to learn the basics of fiction. I also find it a good place to experiment with form, as I often feel I’d not have the stamina to write a longer piece so experimentally.

Q – Have you got any advice for people interested in writing short fiction?

MM – I love short fiction. Write stories of around 2,000 – 5,000 words, and research competitions and literary magazines that you can send them to. Like I said before, it’s useful to experiment, and a great exercise is to write up your own anecdotes.

Q – How do you structure your day to get your writing done?

MM – In the past I’ve spent time getting up early and writing before I go to work. At the moment I’m fortunate: my son goes to school, and I work from home, so I start writing after I drop him off. I try to get a couple of hours of writing in, and then spend time doing this sort of thing!

Q – Do you have a word count you aim to meet by the end of the week or month when you’re working on a project, or are you quite flexible? Also, how do you cope with writer’s block?

MM – I met Louis de Bernieres when I was starting out, and he said he wrote 2000 words a day. I made a figure of 500 in my head and worked with that. I found that manageable, and have since built it up to around 2,000. That’s not to say they’re good, but I can get them down.

I cope with writer’s block by just trying harder. If that fails, I might go for a walk, watch telly, or make up scenes that might not be in the book, but might inspire me. My daily practice is to edit the work of the day before, and then start new writing. This gets me into the flow and makes it easier for me to write fresh words.

At the moment I’m having major blocks about writing a novel, so I’m writing short stories instead.

Q – What do you think about having a mentor to look over and appraise your work?

MM – A mentor is always good if you can afford it. A new perspective from an experienced writer is often very helpful.

Q – Mark, it’s been fantastic being able to talk with you. Thanks!

MM – It’s my pleasure, best of luck with all your writing!

Mark McNay

Mark studied Creative Writing at UEA. He went on to publish Fresh which won the Saltire First Book Award and The Arts Foundation Fellowship in Fiction.

Mark has also published short stories. Occasionally, he writes poems. Recently he moved into drama. He has written one play and is now working on his second.

Getting Started: Beginners' Fiction

Begins: 23 September 2019