Those of you who have read my last post on the WoMentoring Project know who Alex Bruty is. For the uninitiated, Alex is a wonderful mentor at The WoMentoring Project where upcoming female authors are provided free mentoring by professional literary women. Also, she has been my mentor since August this year. To know more about this project, read on!
In Conversation with Alex Bruty
Tell us about the WoMentoring Project.
I think the WoMentoring project is best described as a pay-it-forward initiative. It was born out of the realisation that there are many ways new writers can get help and feedback on their writing; for example via degree courses, professional editing/feedback services, but all these things cost a lot of money. What if someone is really talented and needs a little bit of help, but can’t afford to pay for it? More and more it seems that whether or not you climb the ladder in any sort of creative pursuit, is greatly dependent on your bank balance. So, WM being a free service is vitally important. People come to WM for a variety of reasons, the mentors range from highly-respected writers and agents, to new writers like me. The aim is to provide mentees with feedback on their writing.
Tell us about your own creative writing journey and how you came to be a part of the WoMentoring Project. How long have you been part of this project?
I’ve always written, but started to take it more serious around eight years ago. Before that I wouldn’t have dreamt of showing anyone anything that I’d written. That’s actually part of the reason that, around a year and a half ago, I volunteered to be a mentor with WM. I’m really just starting out myself, but I know what a leap of faith it can be to show someone something you’ve written for the first time. Cost is not the only prohibitive factor in someone not wanting to join something like a writing group or course. There are lots of talented people who are frightened to show anyone their writing- you could say it’s the literary equivalent of stage fright. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s great. But, if you eventually would like to get something published, then I’d say feedback is pretty essential. That’s what I feel I can offer a mentee, a safe environment to test things out, explore their writing and find out what they can improve on. I know that the short stories I’ve had published wouldn’t have been accepted had I not been through the long learning processes that I have, so to pass on some of that knowledge to someone else is a real pleasure.
What do you love most about this project?
I think the best thing for me is seeing not only the growth in literary voice of my mentees, but also their growth in confidence.
Mentoring can be educational to both the mentor and the mentee. Tell us about something that you learnt while mentoring for The WoMentoring Project.
Mentoring just refreshes everything you already know, but forces you not to let it lapse! So, in that sense, it reinforces good habits. Also, on a more personal level with you, Arpita, I am learning not only about Indian culture, but about the lack of opportunities to do creative writing courses that there are in India.
What is it that you look for in a good short story?
To be immediately transported into another world. Writing short stories requires many different things to novels- the obvious one being there is less time to absorb yourself into the setting and get to know the characters. For this reason, the writer has less time to ‘grab’ the reader, so it has to be immediately engaging and concise. For my own personal taste, I like to read about something that I’ve never considered before; or, to read a writing style that is truly distinctive.
Suggest three writers that an aspiring short-story writer must read.
I’d probably recommend they read something that is in the same vein as the genre/style they are writing in, and then, the exact opposite, something that they would never consider writing, just to compare and contrast different styles and consider all the options that are available.
My own personal three favourite short story collections are The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith; No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July and The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan.
Tell us about one creative writing exercise that has helped you the most as a writer.
The one that helps me the most is freewriting because it’s just raw and you don’t get a chance to self-edit. It’s basically writing down the first things that come into your head and letting your thoughts spiral, it often takes you somewhere you wouldn’t automatically go. It can even get a bit weird sometimes, in an out-of-body type of way, like it’s not really you who’s in charge of the pen/keyboard…or maybe that’s just me! Most of it will probably be unusable, but it’s very freeing and there might just be that one amazing line hidden in there somewhere.
If you were asked to give three tips to an aspiring author, as far as the structure and voice of writing is concerned, what would they be?
A tutor of mine would always say ‘find the uniqueness within your writing’. I think this is particularly applicable to the voice of a character, or a story. At first it could sound like obvious advice, but it requires you to be really honest and ask yourself if you are creating something that is unique rather than a pastiche of someone else you admire, or even something that you’ve written before.
I’m not a fan of formal structural advice, as I think it can halt creativity. I’d prefer a really messy, unstructured first draft that can be edited later, rather than trying to keep to a pre-destined structure that might stifle creativity. Having said that, structurally, I often find that new writers tend to get muddled with where exactly in a story they have said something. For example, certain knowledge might be assumed at the beginning of a story without them actually writing it on the page. In contrast, sometimes too much information is given at the wrong times and it can slow a story down. Try not to get too expositional and bogged down with details that aren’t needed. And remember that dialogue can often be a great way of picking up the pace of a piece if you feel things are getting a bit static.