Guests on 31st May 2017 Martine McDonagh and Steven May

Novelists and creative writing tutors, Martine McDonagh and Stephen May,  will discuss their latest novels and how they approach writing about family relationships at Novel Nights.  With seven novels between them and years of experience of helping other writers with their work this event promises to be insightful and interesting.  

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Date: Wednesday, May 31st 2017

  • Martine McDonagh‘s third novel, Narcissism for Beginners, was published in March 2017. Martine worked for 30 years as an artist manager in the music business (so knows a thing or two about narcissism) and devised and runs the MA Creative Writing & Publishing at West Dean College in Sussex. She has also worked as an editor, proofreader and script consultant. Martine grew up in Bristol and her second novel, After Phoenix, is set there.

Connect with Martine: @MartineM_Writer Instagram: martinemcdonaghauthor


  • Stephen May was born in 1964 and didn’t begin writing seriously until his 40s. His first novel TAG was longlisted for Wales Book of The Year and won the Media Wales Reader’s Prize. His second, Life! Death! Prizes! was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Novel Award and The Guardian Not The Booker Prize. His third novel Wake Up Happy Every Day was published in 2014 and his latest Stronger Than Skin is published by Sandstone Press in March 2017. Stephen has worked as a storyliner for television soap opera, written two textbooks on creative writing and collaborates on performance pieces with theatre-makers, artists, film-makers, musicians and dancers.

Connect with Stephen: @Stephen_May1

The first part of the evening will consist of readings of novel extracts where writers are exploring family themes.  If you want to be considered for a slot you’ll need to submit it for consideration. Good luck.


Review: The evolution of publishing with Tangent Books at Novel Nights

Editor of the arts review blog, Bristol Eye, Ivana Galapceva,  blogged about  April’s Novel Nights this month. Her reviews on art, theatre and culture can be found on Bristol Eye 

Here is her review in full:

Novel Nights with Bristol-based publishers Tangent Books

Novel Nights is a series of monthly literary events at The Square Club. Each month features readings by budding local writers and chairs industry speakers. This month attendees had the pleasure of getting acquainted with three writers: Kevin Henney, Suzanne McConaghy, and Gavin Watkins.

Suzanne McConaghy has had many educational resources published and won the publisher’s Diamond award for French and Spanish fiction in 2015 and their Outstanding Author Award 2016. She has a middle-grade novel in English out to agents, is revising an adult thriller set in Colombia and has begun a dystopian story, working title ‘Takeover’. This is a young adult novel set in a dystopian world only a few years from now, and for Novel Nights she read from her chapter 1.

Kevin Henney writes shorts and flashes and drabbles of fiction, which have appeared online. His stories have been published in literary magazines and anthologies. He organises the BristolFlash events for National Flash Fiction Day and is involved in the organisation of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He presented his short story The Jar over the Edge.

Gavin Watkins is a Bristol-based writer, inventor, poet, engineer, artist, baker, runner and brewer of exotic wines. He is a member of the Bristol Writers Group, and a committee member of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He has had short stories published in local anthologies, and his own zines. His debut novel The Ultimate Career Move – a pop music conspiracy novel – is available from Tangent Books and Amazon. He read an excerpt from his book for Novel Nights.

The second part of the evening featured Richard Jones as a guest speaker, who is the brains behind the Bristol-based publishers Tangent Books. Tangent publishes titles as diverse as the Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies, Banksy’s Bristol, as well as short story collections. Their list is divided thematically into Art, Bristol and Books and their list includes memoir, fiction and poetry.

In his words, Tangent Books publishes radical literature, celebrating Bristol’s counterculture by giving voice to unknown authors.

Richard is a regular at the London Book Fair and this year took notes especially for the Novel Nights audience.

He talked about the evolution of independent publishing from vanity publishing to self-publishing to ultimately getting the status of independent publishing.

Raising the question over to the audience of why one needs a publisher, a discussion opened up around the need of endorsement by a mainstream publisher, the validation, and the quality control process – all very legitimate and valid reasons for one to aspire getting an agent and a publisher.

Leaning on empirical evidence that shows there is a different route for writers, Richard talked about self-publishing or more specifically the Kindle Direct Publishing by Amazon, and the fantastic benefits that authors get when they pursue this path. He gave specific examples of authors’ successes (Adam Croft) and emphasized that unlike traditional publishers Amazon reacts really quickly to what is doing well.

Authors who choose to publish this way regard themselves as the CEOs of their own company and work on their writing with an entrepreneurial spirit and flare.

Richard emphasised the distinction between independent publishers and independent publishing. Amazon is not only a shop, but also a publisher with a massive distribution network so that anyone in the world can access your book. Authors who self-publish are asked to adhere to the highest professional standards; employing copy editors, development editors, a team of proof readers.  Richard stressed the notion of writers investing in their work, just as photographers would invest in their kit.

There was also a mention of the opportunities for audio books describing it as a massive market that is largely untouched.

It was interesting to hear the opinions of the audience and to discuss Amazon as both an opportunity for authors and a threat to publishers – quite a powerful dichotomy.

Richard Jones provided invaluable insights into publishing trends and initiated an open discussion about publishing. It was an interesting evening giving authors lots of food for thought.

There was also a mention of the opportunities for audio books describing it as a massive market that is largely untouched.


The next Novel Nights is on May 31st with the theme of ‘Writing on Family’. Already confirmed speakers include Stephen May and Martine McDonagh, both MA lecturers and novelists.

For submissions and tickets, visit:

My top three books on writing technique

Ever since I’ve been writing novels I’ve been searching for help with this mammoth task, wanting to steep myself in craft and learn all I can from other writers.   I’ve gained a lot from listening to guests at Novel Nights over the last three years and my writing group, but I’m still hopeful surely, there must be a secret that, once cracked,  could lead to publishing nirvana.

Now  I’m studying on my Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University our tutors tell us, ‘there are no rules.’ Except for the ones we break, obviously.

Here’s a short round up of my favourite how-to books on technique taken from the many on my shelves.

  1. Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

This is a dense text that needs to be read slowly, like an essay, with highlighting tabs to hand. Thomas teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and the text is full of helpful advice for writers. The first part of the book is  called theory and will help you understand the difference between narration, plot and story-telling, how events need to be shaped to be compelling and gives examples of how to subvert basic plots.

Thomas references a huge amount of literature to back up her points and questions hypotheses which make Monkeys with Typewriters an intellectually honest read. She  provides a very useful story matrix that she uses with her students to generate ideas for their novels.

The second part of the book deals with practice. There’s a whole chapter devoted to, ‘Writing a good sentence,’ which goes beyond the usual advice of deleting adverbs or weasel words. She discusses the differences between minimalist and ‘expansive writing’ and thoughtfully challenges assumptions on minimalism. I found some of the book’s exercises particularly useful including finding a ‘seed word’ for your novel to energise it.

This book is the sort of thing you can keep at your bedside. It’s thoughtful encouraging style and will help you dive deeper into your writing, and provides gentle encouragement.Solutions for writers by Sol Stein.

2.Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein.

This writer’s handbook gives examples of how you can improve your writing, and starts with questioning your responsibility to your readers. Chapters worth reading include ‘The Secrets of Good Dialogue’,  What is unique about the book is that Stein gives an example of poor writing and then an example of an improved version. Stein has edited authors such as Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin and W.H Auden. The only downside of the book is the tiny font.

3. Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing & Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

If you’re looking for something more didactic with easy to follow headings, bullet points, well laid out text and lots of short exercises then try James Scott Bell. He writes Write Great Fiction series of books; useful to have next to your laptop. Whilst most of his examples come from the commercial end of the publishing market there are many basic principles which will be helpful to all writers.

By Grace Palmer who directs Novel Nights.



26th April at Novel Nights Independent Publishing with Tangent Books

This month, Richard Jones from Bristol-based independent publisher, Tangent Books will give an overview of the Independent publishing world.

Fresh from the London Book Fair he’ll also talk about wider trends in publishing and opportunities for writers. He says, ‘there’s never been a better time for writers.’

Get your questions ready. Visit Tangent on

Tangent publish an eclectic mix of books on topics such as street art, Bristol, politics, poetry and fiction. Tangent also publishes short story anthologies including the Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies.

Buy Tickets 

Announcing our readers:

 Kevlin Henney, Suzanne McConaghy and Gavin Watkins

Kevlin Henney writes shorts and flashes and drabbles of fiction, which have appeared online, on tree and on air. His stories have been published in places usual for fiction (such as Litro and Every Day Fiction) and less usual (such as Physics World and New Scientist), and have snuck into a number of anthologies, including We Can Improve You, Landmarks, North by Southwest and The Salt Anthology of New Writing. He (dis)organises the BristolFlash events for National Flash Fiction Day and is involved in the organisation of the Bristol Festival of Literature. Twitter @kevlinhenney

Suzanne McConaghy has had many educational resources published and won the publisher’s Diamond award for French and Spanish fiction in 2015 and their Outstanding Author Award 2016. She has now turned to fiction full-time. She has a middle-grade novel in English out to agents, is revising an adult thriller set in Colombia and has begun a dystopian story, working title ‘Takeover,’ from which tonight’s reading comes.

Gavin Watkins is a Bristol based writer, inventor, poet, engineer, artist, baker, runner and brewer of exotic wines. He is a member of the Bristol Writers Group, and a committee member of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He has had short stories published in local anthologies, and his own zines. His debut novel The Ultimate Career Move – a pop music conspiracy novel – is available from Tangent Books and Amazon. Twitter @g_watkinsauthor

March 29th 2017 Ghostwriting with Tom Henry

Tom Henry is a freelance professional ghostwriter. See his site at

He says, “I help people who have great stories to tell, but don’t always have the time or the capability to tell them. I like working with ‘ordinary’ people whose lives are richer than any fiction.”

Latest books include: Orphans of Islam, The Fight for Fordhall Farm and Three and Out.

Tom has had thirteen books published in ten years. He’s helped tell the stories of a former child refugee, an evacuee and a woman speaking out on the Rotherham child abuse scandal.

At Novel Nights he’ll be talking about

  • how to discover and develop the voice
  • how to get the best from your characters
  • ghostwriting
  • co-authoring stories

As well as this author talk and Q and A there will be readings by local writers in the first half of the evening. Amanda Read, Kate Dunn and Patrick Collins.

Tickets for the event Buy tickets for Ghostwriting with Tom Henry

February 2017 Writing Romantic Fiction

This month the theme is all about love and writing romantic fiction. Guest author, Rosemary Dun ‘s debut novel  The Trouble with Love was published last year by  Sphere. Buy the book on Amazon (Currently just 99p). It’s getting 5 star reviews.

Set in Bristol, the novel’s heroine Polly has her own life set up thank you very much with her own business and house.  She meets the lovely Spike aware that he’s emigrating to Australia. She hadn’t planned on falling in love or falling pregnant… Three years later, the single mum is dating again – she’s just found someone when Spike returns with a new girlfriend by his side …

  • Rosemary will be talking about
  • how she got published (and the prat falls along the way);
  • how it’s never too late to get that publishing deal;
  • whether the romantic comedy is a genre which has had its day, or is still very much alive & kicking?
  • Rosemary will also do a short reading from her debut novel The Trouble With Love, published by Little, Brown, followed by a Q&A.

Buy tickets for Writing Romantic Comedy with Rosemary Dun
During the first half of the evening,  we will hear readings from Kate Dun, Chloe Turner, Judy Darley and Amy Morse

Kate Dunn:  I’ve had five books published, written articles for magazines and contributed poetry to literary journals. I’ve also written travel articles for national newspapers including The Observer and The Daily Telegraph. You can find more information from my website

Chloe Turner (@turnerpen2paper) is a writer from Gloucestershire, whose stories have been published in literary magazines including Hark, Kindred (US), Halo and The Woven Tale Press. InShort Publishing (Aus) released Long-gone Mary as an individual pocketbook in 2015, and Labour of Love was a For Books’ Sake Weekend Read earlier this year. Chloe is seeking representation for her first novel, What Has Fallen From Heaven.

Judy Darley is a fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines, anthologies and in her collection Remember Me To The Bees. She’s read stories on BBC radio, in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. Judy blogs at

Author and entrepreneur,  Amy Morse, writes fiction as Amy C Fitzjohn. Harbouring dreams of being a writer since childhood, she published her first novel, The Bronze Box, in 2013. Since then she has written three further novels, and counting.

Buy tickets for Writing Romantic Comedy with Rosemary Dun

January 2017 Writing Historical Fiction Writer biographies

Historical Fiction: Guest author at Novel Nights in 2017 is Celia Brayfield 

She will talk about writing historical fiction, and there will be a Q&A

Buy tickets 

Writing Historical Fiction
Author, Celia Brayfield talk on Writing Historical Fiction 25th January 2017

Celia has written nine novels and four non-fiction titles.

The latest, Wild Weekend explores the tensions in a Suffolk village in homage to Oliver Goldmsith’s She Stoops to Conquer. To explore suburban living, she created the community of Westwick and explored mid-life manners in Mr Fabulous And Friends, and the environmental implications of urbanisation in Getting Home.

She has often juxtaposed historical and contemporary settings, notably eighteenth century Spain in Sunset, pre-revolutionary St Petersburg in White Ice and Malaysia in the time of World War II in Pearls. F

Her non-fiction titles include two standard works on the art of writing: Arts Reviews (Kamera Books, 2008) and Bestseller (Fourth Estate, 1996.) Her most recent is Deep France (Pan, 2004) a journal of a year she spent writing in south-west France.

She has served on the management committee of The Society of Authors and judged national literary awards including the Betty Trask Award and the Macmillan Silver PEN Prize. A former media columnist, she contributes to The Times, BBC Radio 4 and other national and international media. ”

Writers who will share short extracts of their novels at Novel Nights.


Trevor Coombs graduated from the University of Bristol with a Diploma in Creative Writing, has completed four novels and written and performed a number of monologues. He likes playing with history, where he feels safe.

Katie Munnik is a Canadian writer living in Cardiff. Her prose, poetry and creative non-fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, in newspapers across Canada and on CBC radio. She has recently completed fiction mentorship through the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and is looking for a home for her first novel, Birthwood

For several years Ali Bacon has been on a mission to tell the story of Scottish artist and photographer David Octavius Hill. Last year she distilled the many thousands of words she had written into an hour’s worth of short stories to be read at a photography festival. She is now adding to these in the hope of completing the collection – and the story – some time soon.

“Lucienne Boyce has published two historical novels: To The Fair Land (SilverWood Books, 2012) andBloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (SilverWood Books, 2015). Bloodie Bones was winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016, and was also a semi finalist for the M M Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction 2016. The Bristol Suffragettes (non fiction) was published in 2013. Lucienne is on the steering committee of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network, and is a presenter on BCfm Radio’s Silver Sound show. “

Writing Competitions

Being placed in a writing competition can kick-start your writing career and get you noticed as a writer. Here are a few:
The Bridport Prize Closes 31st May 2017

The Bristol Prize Closes 3rd May 2017

Bath Novel Award Closes 24th April 2017

Fish Publishing Prizes:

  • Flash Fiction Closes 28th February 2017
  • Short Memoir Closes 31st January 2017

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition Closes 13th February 2017

Review by Trevor Coombs of Novel Nights talk with literary agent, Carrie Kania

Carrie Kania

Pretend you’re in an elevator and somebody asks, “What’s your novel about?” I had to put aside the obvious question – are we talking two floors in The Galleries, Bristol, or the Sears Tower, Chicago – for fear of missing what was said next. ‘Synopses? Don’t always read them. I go straight for the writing. I look for pace, voice and character.’ ‘Think what’s written on the back of the book.’

Anyone who’s done a creative writing course, read a book or blog on how to get published, or, indeed, attended other how-to-get-an-agent talks, would know that much of the above flies in the face of some accepted wisdom. How long have I agonised over a synopsis? How many times was I told to step away from the commercial language of book blurbs? It’s for your own safety, sir. It was clear from the outset that this would be a refreshing take on how to approach an agent.

Carrie commenced her talk with her top five tips, as follows:

  1. Make sure you’re ready. The novel has to be finished, edited and rewritten however many times, and also to have gone through a period of reflection before you even consider clicking send.
  2. Send it to the right person. Check out who an agent represents. Would your novel look good on the bookshelf next to theirs? Don’t send blanket applications, spend time researching instead.
  3. Be professional but informal in your approach. Mention why you are sending it to them.
  4. Understand your pitch. Compare yourself to great writers, if you have to, but make sure it’s not bullshit.
  5. Summarise your book quickly. See the quote that opened this review, above.
  6. Send out to multiple agents. (An  absolute no no, I was once told – send out and wait, then send out and wait again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)

Okay, that was six top tips, but that’s how many I scribbled down. She was breaking the rules already, and my wrist was hurting.

From the Q and A and discussion that followed, it became clear that Carrie is and has to be businesslike –

“You don’t make money – I don’t make money”

but equally important to her is the relationship between agent and writer. You have to get on. You have to share the same outlook. She has to like you and your writing. you have to like her and trust her.

Questions in the Q and A ranged across the whole spectrum of writing. Here are a few with Carrie’s, sometimes very, short answers:

Q: I have a story set in Ireland and have had no luck with English agents. Should I go to an Irish agent? A: Irish writing is hot at the moment and there are some good agents about.

Q: What about non-fiction submissions? A: Carrie outlined the differences between submitting non-fiction and fiction, most notably how the synopsis is much more important, and should therefore be longer. Also, the agent needs to know the ‘treatment’ of the content, particularly as a typical non-fiction submission will not yet have been written.

Q: Any preference for creative writing students? A: Nope

Q: Are multiple viewpoints good to have? A: Difficult to do well.

Q:Should I liken my work to films? A: Not really.

Q: Do you pass any interesting manuscripts if they are not for you? A:Yes, if they are good, either to another agent in the agency, and occasionally to other agencies.

Q: What is the ideal length of a novel? A: 60,000 to 110,000 words.

Q: What about the self-publishing route? A: She shies away from it and doesn’t know many agents who will take something that’s been uploaded to Amazon, no matter how many reader recommendations it’s received.

Q: Do I need to use social media? A: Only if you’re into it.

So, what did I learn? Well, some agents are human – who would have thought it? I sent my last novel forty times, the one before thirty-five times. For those that insisted on hard copy, I received slips, sometimes signed letters and sometimes daggers to the heart –  I made that last bit up. For those that like soft copy, I received emails that felt generated by bot or, more disturbingly, nothing at all. But I did receive three emails from humans, telling me why they couldn’t take me on, and one of these complimented me on my writing. I immediately proposed marriage to her. Still waiting.

I also learned that the one-page synopsis + the obligatory bio + the three chapters of fifty pages + the covering letter, add up to a system that does for most, but its rigidity is there to be tested.

Carrie is a human, and humans create their own systems or adapt the ones in place. She wants to find good writing and she doesn’t care how she achieves it. Which is why she won’t always read a synopsis, which is why she’ll welcome an approach over cocktails at her Soho bar, and which is why perhaps she’ll get out to the provinces now and then.

Oh, and for the whingers who moaned about the twelve quid admission to Novel Nights this time, and here I include myself, this was worth every penny.