Meet the Circle: Barbara Mariani

Barbara Mariani

Barbara Mariani

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our work with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Barbara Mariani, our Thursday evening sessions’ co-chair. Barbara is Italian but a happy resident outside her own country. Brussels has brought her back to her university literary interests, which she left aside too long to dedicate herself to what she thought was a more promising profession in environmental policies and public affairs. She is an enthusiast reader of literary fiction, the only fiction she is really passionate about, and has decided to write her first novel in English.

When did you join the group?
In 2014, as I was looking for a writing course.

What were your first impressions of the group?
My impressions were so great that I never stopped going to the weekly meetings since then. What captured me was the mix of informal atmosphere of the gatherings and genuine talent and generosity of spirit of many of the members, some of whom unfortunately have left the Circle as they have headed back to their own countries. Since the first meeting I attended I have felt a sort of sense of “belonging” to the Circle. For me it has been like finding an escape from everyday work routine to a territory where I could switch off and become absorbed in artistic creation with people who share the same passion, even though we come from diverse cultures and are all very different.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel which I have started a couple of years ago, evolving from a short story. It’s set in our times and tells the story of a young woman, Caterina Del Canto, whom life has put in front of many unexpected reversals of fortune which have taken away from her origins but also, projected her into unknown worlds. It’s a story about the recklessness and sense of uncontrolled speed, the confusion and profound loneliness that characterises our age.

What are your biggest literary influences ? How have they influenced you?
Raymond Carver book coverThere are so many. I’m a passionate reader of classics and those who have influenced me most are Tolstoj, Proust, Mann, Miller, Hemingway, Flaubert, Maugham, Marquez, Nabokov, Fitzgerald. But I have also found inspiration in many writers of the late 20th century, such as R. Carver, P. Auster, M. Richler, D.F Wallace, J. Irving. I think that these writers have in common the capacity to write in a way that the experience in front of our eyes is really authentic (even though it may be all invented… but that’s the real talent!), something we can connect to emotionally, and at the same time so special in the way they are telling it. It’s the perfect mix between the universal and the particular that make these books unique. They are all style masters, they have found the right “voice”, so difficult to find for a writer, that makes their books stand out in a special place in people’s souls. Finally, each time I re-read them is a new experience. They really are like precious Chinese boxes.

book cover by marquez

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
I have some beautiful memories from the BWC annual retreats in Tremelo. I felt like we were a big family and that those winter evenings spent in front of the fireplace playing ice-breaking games or talking about writing tricks, politics, religion, philosophy, music or whatever was the issue of the moment are priceless and stand out. Another great emotion was the publication of the first BWC Anthology in 2016, a project in which very few of us had really believed at the beginning but that finally went through thanks to the tenaciousness of some members.

What do you get out of the group?
Inspiration, challenging thoughts and ideas, good vibes & good company.


Meet the Circle: Karmen Špiljak

Profile photo KarmenThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our work with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Karmen Špiljak, our Thursday evening sessions’ co-chair. A Slovenian, who feels European, has been writing since a very early age. She is a big fan of crime fiction and writes mystery stories that often have feminist and environmental notes. The biggest obstacle to her writing is that she often has to negotiate computer time with her two cats.

When did you join the group?
Sometime in summer 2017. Before that, I facilitated a workshop at the retreat in May. It’s my first ever writers’ group and I was really excited to join and meet other writers.

What were your first impressions of the group?
It has a lot of talent from all over the world. When it comes to creativity, Brussels really can surprise. I was quite impressed by other people’s work and feedback. It’s great to see such a variety in genres, too. Though I was a bit nervous, the group turned out to be very supportive and motivating.

What have you published so far?

Cover of the novel A perfect flaw

A prefect flaw, cover

In my teenage years, I published several short stories in local newspapers, regional competitions and Slovenian magazines. During my student years, I hardly wrote anything at all, but the story idea began to shape in my mind, that became my first novel: A perfect flaw, a contemporary story about growing up and finding out who you really are.

What are you currently working on?
I have just finished the first draft of a dystopian science fiction novel. It’s set about 200 years in the future in a small society that has survived a climate disaster and has taken some drastic measures to keep peace and order. My heroine suffers the results of these measures and tries to discover what really happened to her.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
I’m influenced by pretty much everything I read and definitely try to learn something from each book and author. Those closest to my heart, though, have remained the same: definitely the queen of crime, Agatha Christie. She had this incredible plotting ability that I really admire a lot.

Then there’s Stephen King. I really love how he puts usual characters in very unusual situations, which I also sometimes do in short stories. One of my all-time favourites is Douglas Adams, whose work encouraged me to get more creative and use humour differently.


But perhaps one of my biggest influences was Miha Mazzini. He’s a very versatile Slovenian writer, whose work covers everything, from literary fiction like Crumbs to haunting stories like The Collector of Names.

He also happens to be an excellent screenplay writer and film director. I was lucky enough to have had him as a tutor at a screenplay writing course in 2006. Many of the techniques that he taught then, I still use today. That course made me think that I can really write for more than just a hobby.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
We once tried to read poetry while a rather big and loud group was having dinner next to us. It proved to be a rather amusing experience.

What do you get out of the group?
Many things. For starters, it’s very rewarding to be among fellow writers, people who go through similar things when creating their stories. I learn a lot from hearing people’s feedback, which affects how I read stories. Of course, there’s also feedback on your own stories. As scary as it can feel to share your writing with the group, it’s also very rewarding, because you get new perspectives, that can help make your story richer. I certainly got a few great ideas that I incorporated into the novel I’m currently working on.

International writing competitions 2018

If you started 2018 full of energy and fresh ideas for stories, we’ve got good news for you: many competitions might be waiting for them.

Here’s our selection of short stories and competition for this year. Most of the competitions listed below accept only submissions that haven’t been published anywhere else. Do check individual website for details.

Best of luck!

Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: Max. 3,000 12 double-spaced pages
Entry fee: $25 per submission ($15 NCWN members)
Prize: $1000
Deadline: January 30, 2018
Publication: The Thomas Wolfe Review

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2018
Theme: Ghost story
Word limit: n/a
Entry fee: £8 per story
Prize: 1st prize £500, 2nd prize £250, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: January 31, 2018
Publication: The Fiction Desk Ghost Stories Anthology 2018

Glimmer Train Short Story Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 12,000 words max.
Entry fee: $18 per submission
First Prize: 1st prize $2,500, 2nd prize $500, 3rd prize $300
Deadline: February 28, 2018
Publication: Winner published in Glimmer Train Stories

Exeter Writers Short Story Competition 2018
Theme: Open
Word limit: 3000 words max
Entry fee: £6
Prize: 1st prize £500,  2nd prize £250, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: February 28, 2018
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Exeter Writers website

The Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction 2018
Theme: Open
Word limit: Under 50 pages
Entry fee: $17 per story
First Prize: $2000
Deadline: March 14, 2018
Publication: Fall/Winter 2018 edition of Colorado Review

The Pinch Literary Awards
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 5,000
Entry fee: $20 for first entry or 1-3 poems, $10 for each subsequent entry
Prizes: 1st prize $1000
Deadline: March 15, 2018
Publication: Spring edition of The Pinch Journal (University of Memphis)
Extra information: Also includes poetry and nonfiction categories

Tethered by Letters Short Story Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1,000-7,500
Entry fee: $15 per submission
First Prize: $1,000
Deadline: March 15, 2018
Publication: F(r)iction

Short Fiction Journal Short Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 5,000
Entry fee: £8 per story
Prizes: 1st prize £500, 2nd prize £100, 3rd prize online masterclass
Deadline: March 31, 2018
Publication: The Short Fiction Journal

The Bath Short Story Award
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 2,200
Entry fee: £8 per story
Prizes: 1st prize £1200, 2nd prize £300, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: April 23, 2018
Publication: The Bath Short Story Award 2018 Anthology

Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 3,000
Entry fee: $16
Prize: 1st prize $2,000, 2nd prize $500, 3rd prize $300
Deadline: April 30, 2018
Multiple entries permitted: 3 submissions max.
Publication: Winner published in Glimmer Train Stories
Extra information: This is a quarterly competition, other deadlines are 31 August 2018 and 2 January 2019

Momaya Press Short Story Award
Theme: Coming of age
Word limit: up to 3,000
Entry fee: £15 per story
Prize: 1st prize $150, 2nd prize $75, 3rd prize $55
Deadline: April 30, 2018
Publication: Momaya Short Story Review 2018.

Bristol Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 4,000
Entry fee: £8 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £1000, 2nd prize £700, 3rd prize £400
Deadline: May 1, 2018
Publication: Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (Volume 11)

The Bridport Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: up to 5,000
Entry fee: £10 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £5000, 2nd prize £1000, 3rd prize £500
Deadline: May 31, 2018
Publication: Bridport Prize 2018 Anthology
Extra information: Also includes poetry and flash fiction categories


Literary Taxidermy Short story Competition
Theme: Open but the competition provides opening and closing lines, chosen from a classic work of literature
Word limit: 3,000
Prizes: a total prize for winnng stories: $1500 and publication in Literary Taxidermy anthology.
Deadline: June 4, 2018

Wells Festival of Literature
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1,000 – 2,000
Entry fee: £6
Prizes: 1st prize £750, 2nd prize £300, 3rd prize £200
Deadline: June 30, 2018

Moth Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 5,000
Entry fee: £12 per story
Prizes: 1st prize £3,000, 2nd prize week-long writing retreat at Circle of Misse in France plus €250 travel stipend 3rd prize €1,000
Deadline: June 30, 2018
Publication: The Moth

Highlands and Islands Short Story Competition
Theme: Open (no link with Scotland necessary)
Word limit: 2000 words max.
Entry fee: £5 (or 3 stories for £12 or 5 for £18)
Prizes: 1st prize £650, 2nd prize £50, 3rd prize £25
Deadline: July 31, 2018
Publication: Online only (HISSAC website)

Writers’ Forum Short Story Competition
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1000-3000 words
Entry fee: £6 (or £3 for subscribers)
Prizes: 1st prize £300, 2nd prize £150, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: Rolling
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Published in Writers’ Forum Magazine
Extra information: Also includes poetry and flash-fiction competitions

Have more competitions you would like to add? Great! Leave a comment and share link to more information.

Disclaimer: we cannot speak for the legitimacy of any of these competitions. They all seem bona fide, but we advise that you check the individual websites to make up your own mind!


Works-in-progress: Pages of an Autumn Journal, by M E Grey

What are you currently working on and what inspired you to start writing it?

‘Pages of an Autumn Journal’ is a series of poems I wrote in late 2016, and I am now posting them at They’re going up one at a time, a year after they were written, and the last one will go up at the end of December – so take a look, and do come back.

IMG_5994The title ‘Pages of an Autumn Journal’ originally applied to a pair of poems I wrote at the start of October 2016 – as if they could be leaves torn from a larger diaristic work, such as Louis Macneice’s Autumn Journal, which reflected on personal and public events during the autumn of 1938.  I then found myself persistently thinking about that title, and realised that I could collect a larger group of poems from that period together (that first pair now go untitled).

Macneice’s work is very engaged with political matters, yet from the perspective of an individual living within them, rather than as persuasion. I am not trying to directly equate 2016 and 1938 (a recent lecture by David Runciman details how this decade is not like that one), but last year there was certainly a feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next.

As a poet of British origin living in Brussels, this means living through the aftermath of terror attacks and the UK’s EU referendum; it means living in a town where people are trying, with and on behalf of a diverse continent, to come up with solutions for youth unemployment and the human consequences of geopolitical instability. Dealing with these ‘issues’ coexists with the experience of just getting on with life – and this quotidian aspect provides at least as much focus for the collection.

Who would be in your opinion the perfect audience for this?

Posting these poems one year later means that the pieces have had some time to breathe – yet they are still very recent. I hope that readers may be able to relate them to their own responses to some of the situations described, and also realise how things have changed in the time since. The poems are, together, a document from a particular time and viewpoint. Thus, while some readers might feel they have more in common with the narrative voice than others (for example if you live in Brussels, if you travel for work, or if you closely follow current affairs), they are intended for general consumption and not just people ‘like’ the narrator.

That said, I also hope the poems are of interest to people who can recognise aspects of themselves in the work – the number of people who proactively read poetry is tiny, so I hope people can come to the poems through interest in the content, as well as the form.

You have read some parts of it in BWC meetings. Did you find the feedback useful

Definitely. There is certainly a sense of validation when you get good feedback, but perhaps more important is to see people reacting to the poems in different ways.

Sometimes people ‘get’ what you first meant, but that isn’t the purpose of writing: a diversity of responses demonstrates the ways that a work can actually continue to exist. The feedback from the group helps me to develop my sense of what I am doing as a writer, and give me the confidence to put effort into disseminating this particular project.

If you could pick one celebrity to read out one of your poems, which poem/celebrity would it be?

I just want people to read them. I want you to read them – and why not start at the beginning. If I try and explain this impulse to myself, then I can use that idea of the poems as documentation or reportage – perhaps to serve the purpose of increased mutual understanding, integral to literature. But who really knows what it is that makes people write?


Time to celebrate

It’s always great to see writers getting rewarded for their hard work, especially when they belong to your writers’ circle.

This year has been especially fruitful for the BWC’s writers: another proof that Brussels is a city of inspiration.

Antoinette Naomi Reddick published her book, “Waiting for Oz, Follow the Lessons Along the Road”.

Colin Walsh won the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition with his “The Flare Carves Itself Through The Dark”. His short story “The best thing” was highly commended by the Bridgeport prize and was published in the latest anthology.

J. L. Morin’s “Nature’s Confession – Climate Change” is among the Book Excellence Award finalists and was listed a top 10 Best Science fiction book. “Nature’s Confession” was also chosen as The Best Climate & Environmental Fiction Book and got an honourable mention on Reader’s Favorite.

Lida Papasokrat published her story “St Roman the Melodist” in Offshoots 14: Writing from Geneva.

T. D. Arkenberg’s short story “Marguerite and the Grand Sablon” is a semi-finalist and “Parvis de Saint-Gilles” is among the finalists in the Faulkner-Wisdom Literary Competition.

Martin Jones’s “What women want” got a third prize in Story Comp and is now published in the Writer’s forum.

Patrick ten Brink’s short story “The take” got an honourable mention in Glimmer Train’s short story award for new writers. His short story “Amelia Borgiotti” is long-listed in the Hourglass short story competition.

Some of our more modest writers, Kevin Dwyer, Claire Davenport,  Joachim Schloemer and Hamed Mobasser aka Punchdog Productions, received awards for their film scripts.

Congratulations to all!



The annual BWC retreat took place in May in Siddharta,Tremelo, with fourteen writers getting together for a weekend of writing workshops in the Flemish countryside. On Friday evening we found our way to Tremelo, defying rainstorms and rush hour traffic, and were rewarded with a delicious dinner and great company. Thirteen different nationalities from all over the world were represented at this year’s retreat – quite a feat for a group of fourteen! Some of the participants were familiar faces, having attended the retreat before and/or being regulars at the Tuesday and Thursday BWC meetings at the Maison des Crèpes; and there were some new faces as well, joining the group for the first time. In either case, once introductions were made there was no shortage of conversation topics, the most popular subject being, as expected, books and writing. The evening continued with an impromptu ice-breaker game of charades with a literary twist, before we retreated (ha!) to our cozy bedrooms to get some rest before the weekend’s workshops.

retreat 1

On Saturday we woke to the smell of pancakes and armed with notebooks, pens and coffee we settled in for a weekend of writing. Mimi Kunz and I were in charge of the first workshop of the retreat, called ”Short Stories: Beginnings, Endings and the In-Between”. Since we’re not experts on short stories, we turned to our favourite short story writers for inspiration. We started with a guessing game of ”Opening line or Closing line?” and a few other exercises around first and last sentences in short stories, and at the end, everyone tried their own hand at writing a very short story. We were quite nervous at first so we’re really grateful to the group for being so nice and participative – we hope everyone had as much fun as we did!

The morning continued with a workshop led by guest workshop leader Cynthia Hiujgens, on ”How to Inject More Creativity Into Your Writing Practice”. Cynthia began by illustrating some of the techniques writers customarily use to find inspiration (listening to music, going for a walk outdoors…) and suggested some exercises to get out of our comfort zone and experiment with stretching our imagination – from writing our name upside down with our non-dominant hand (easier said than done!) to drawing a scene from a work-in-progress to role-play using props to get under our characters’ skin. Cynthia’s workshop left us full of new ideas and perspectives on art and writing, and excited to try new ways of bringing more creativity into our lives.

retreat 2

After a quick lunch we gathered again for the much-anticipated meeting with agents Sharon Galant and Thomasin Chinnery of the Zeitgeist Media Group Literary Agency. Sharon and Thomasin explained what a literary agent does, what happens during the different stages of book publication and very patiently answered all our questions on how it all works. After the session, we were given the opportunity to individually pitch an idea and get feedback on our pitching technique. Thank you to Sharon and Thomasin for this wonderful workshop!

retreat 4

After all this excitement, we bid farewell to our guests and went outside to enjoy the brief spell of sunshine in between rainstorms. Some authors went off to write, inspired by the day’s workshops, others went for a walk or played a friendly game of pétanque (and by friendly, of course, we mean extremely competitive). Authors also had the opportunity to have a professional author’s picture taken by photographer Maite Morren, who joined us on Saturday evening. After dinner we indulged in the traditional BCW retreat cheese and wine extravaganza, against the backdrop of the the Eurovision finals (congrats Portugal!)

The next morning we woke up to bright sunshine and more pancakes (thank you Genevieve!) Given the warm weather, an executive decision was made to take the workshops outside, and we gathered around the picnic table sporting sunglasses and sunscreen for the first of the day’s workshops, “Writing Comedy”, led by Hamed Mobasser. Hamed talked about different techniques used in comedy writing both in screenplays (his specialty) and in other forms of writing. Participants then got to write their own funny bumper stickers and comedy scenes, with hilarious results.

retreat 3

Our last workshop of the retreat but by no means the least was led by author Karmen Špiljak, who put together a series of exercises on ”Descriptions”. After illustrating different types of description techniques by comparing passages from different books, Carmen had us write a description of the retreat’s setting, which was completely transformed depending on the genre the author had chosen: comedy, romance or thriller!

A Sunday feast was waiting back at the house, and everyone enjoyed a long lunch before returning to everyday life, hopefully full of new ideas and inspiration to write – I know I did!

An immense thank you to:

Sharon Galant and Thomasin Chinnery of the Zeitgeist Media Group ( Huijgens (to find out more about the inspiration behind Cynthia’s workshop look at and and Karmen Špiljak ( for taking time out of their weekend to lead workshops at the retreat,
Mimi Kunz ( for being the awesomest workshop co-leader,
Maite Morren for the professional photography (,
Hamed Mobasser, who has been organising the BWC retreat for four years now,
the Siddharta community for their kind hospitality (,
and of course to all the participants!


Anthology 1 Book Launch!

“Hereby I summon all the scribes of the world…”  –Ocean Smets

On Thursday, September 29th, 2016, the Brussels Writers’ Circle held the launch of Circle of Words: Anthology 1 a collection of short writings by members of the BWC.  Hosted by Waterstones Books in the heart of Brussels, guests enjoyed wine and cheese (oh, yes, and pretzels, cake, and chocolate), and despite the weather turning rainy and cold, so many people turned out that the reading room was overflowing, and latecomers had to stand and listen from around the corner.  The Circle of Words is on sale in Waterstones Brussels, can also be bought from Circle of Words – Harvard Square Editions, and is available as Kindle version via Amazon.

Seven of the contributors to Antho 1 read excerpts from their pieces, and here is what we learned.

  • Patrick ten Brink hinted that sometimes a tattoo is more than just a tattoo, in The Birdman.
  • Sarah Harris gave voice to the oaks in The Legacy.  Asked “How long have you been here?” they answer “All the time. “
  • Klavs Skovsholm introduced us to Robert, the power-walking rat in Paper Angel, and asks “What’s sentimental about a rat’s life?” Then he shows us that some things in the gutter glitter, so the answer might be: everything.
  • Ciprian Begu knocked the ground out from under our feet with his flash fiction piece, Picnic on the White Cliff.  The dangers around the Carpathian waters near Transylvania are not what you might expect.
  • Barbara Mariani described Antonio’s Room for us, which includes a bookshelf made from a boat, and a mysterious photo of Marcelo Mastroianni.
  • Larisa Doctorow evoked the passion and loss of Orpheus, through her husband’s expert reading to us about crystal songs and shrieking furies.
  • Claire Davenport read a chapter from The Long Way to You on families and values (and the mysterious reference to the Phallus Impudicus).


After the readings, everyone chatted with the authors, bought books, had one last glass, and headed out into the night, hopefully to write.  Because, as Kevin Ireland says, “our planet is chockablock with…writers.”


The Brussels Writers’ Circle is a group for English language writers young and old from across the continents, writing across all genres.

BWC meets Tuesday & Thursday at 7pm in La Maison des Crêpes,  Rue du Midi 13. For more info, write us at Brusselswriterscircle at gmail.

PS!  We are now putting together Anthology 2!  Deadline to submit is end of November. Please send submissions to the BWC email and Patrick_ten_Brink at yahoo.


Meet the Circle: Patrick ten Brink

MTCPatrickPhotoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Patrick ten Brink, the co-chair of our Tuesday evening sessions and responsible for the BWC Anthology 2. Patrick is, I am told, a German with a Dutch name who grew up in Melbourne, Tokyo and London, and thought for ages that he was a Brit (but not any more). He has written a load of non-fiction and, coming home one day six years ago with a new book, was encouraged by his daughter to write something that everyone could read, not just those in offices. So he has written close to every day since, complementing the daily non-fiction, with early morning and late evening magic realism.

When did you join the group?

November 2015. I had just finished a draft of the first book of a three part novel I was working on – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and I had a growing niggle saying that I should find a writers group to get constructive feedback on what works well and what could work better with a bit (or even a lot!) of effort. So I googled it, wrote an exploratory email, got an impressively speedy reply, and within a week I was reading out the first chapter to a dozen writers of different background, age and origin.

What were your first impressions of the group?

Friendly but scary. There is a round of introductions, a concise two or three sentences each. Just enough. Not too much, communicating the purpose: we are here to read, listen and comment. This first time is a bit freaky. I hand out copies, and read three, four pages. Twelve faces watch as every word leaves my mouth. It is odd how you can see that they listen, like musicians, with a different part of their brain firing than painters. It is not the eyes that anchor them. There is a way the head cocks to the side to orientate the ear. The last word uttered, the twelve heads drop as one to focus on the copies in front of them, pens scribbling. No eye contact, no signal of delight or disdain, joy or boredom. Ten minutes of scratching paper.

These are the oddest minutes, each second stretching. I wonder whether it really is wise to volunteer my thoughts to this jury, await judgement and advice from people I didn’t know.

Then one by one the pens are laid down, the heads lift, eye contact re-made and the comments tumble out. Advice like sandwiches, a first layer of compliments (Oof, I sigh), a rich filling of constructive criticism (diverse, complimentary, sometimes contradictory, close to always useful), and some words of encouragement. You need the bread, but it is the filling you really came here for.

A round of thanks, another round of drinks and the next writer is on and now it is my turn to listen, underline the great, point out the potential that is not yet fully there, and the bits that inevitably could merit more attention. By the end of the first day I feel welcome in a community helping each other to learn the writer’s craft, encouraging each other to keep going. I am told that occasionally some don’t come back after the first reading. Most do, and they, as I, really do benefit from this wonderful mixed bag of people.

What are you currently working on?

Patrick doesn’t only draw with words…!

I am working on my three part fantasy novel – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and two books of illustrated travel poetry. I’ve completed the first two parts of the Tides (though these are in full edit-and-polish phase) and have started the third.

The books are about three children – Celeste, Newton and Clementine Wells – who start a new life in St. Estelle, a tidal town in France with miles of windswept beaches that get cloaked in mists. The children are drawn into helping two old eccentric beachcombers (Freya de L’Etoile and Georgiu de la Roche) deal with mysterious treasures and creatures swept up in spring tides. They discover that nothing is quite as it seems in this town and with the old couple.

MTCPatrickSquidFreya secretly sculpts animals out of words and brings them to life, but accidentally creates creatures that stalk the lands. The children soon become essential to protect St. Estelle from these Accidental Creations and, in the second book, from the return of St. Estelle’s prodigal son, Darius de Grey.

In the third book, Celeste gets trapped in the magical Land of the Black Sands and meets a pale ghost of a boy. She… Well I can’t say more as it hasn’t written itself yet.


You’re a busy man then! Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

MTCPatrickStarbookGabriel Garcia Marquez and Ben Okri gave me magic, myths and imagery, a joy of life and freedom to let the imagination run riot. MTCPatrickNerudaPablo Neruda gave the real poetry of reality and the art of seeing things how they are. Matsuo Basho gave me crystallised reality, taking a photo of the world with words and whispering them to others. Finally, and more recently, I’ve enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which has not only been an immense pleasure, but showed that writing a philosophical novel can be a dream and hugely entertaining even if deep. In summary – it is okay to give one’s imagination free rein over one’s words, it is okay to be deep, but capture reality and whisper it to the reader in packaged, glinting crystal words. Then you can tell your story and maybe others will read it and smile.


Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

The annual retreat in May 2016 was particularly memorable. In an exercise Hamed led, we sought the questions in the text, noted where the answers came and how it affected reading the text. We quickly saw that questions and answers drove the reader forward, some to the next sentence, others to the next paragraph, and a few larger questions were only answered at the end of the story. And one or two were left unanswered so that readers look forward to the next story. While obvious with hindsight, it was a really good exercise to do. When reviewing my own writing with these tools, I realised that I’d posited way too many questions in one of my chapters.

The other exercise that was fascinating was one where everyone wrote a bit of a story and someone else had to continue the story and then read it out. It was interesting to see how easy (and fun) it was to get into the style-skin of another writer and keep the story going. Even more eye-opening was what others did to one’s own story. In my case Mimi made my character do more in a paragraph than I had in a page, as if liberating her to race along the now fast evolving plot-line. That revealed another side of one of my novel-characters to me. So thank you for that!

What do you get out of the group?

I get constant encouragement to master all the tools in the writer’s tool kit, and insights on how to use them – not only through comments when I read, but seeing others’ work. Some have a great sense of voice, with characters instantly alive. Others have stories that grab you, pull you in and embark you on a high speed journey. Yet others offer poetic puzzles where every word is chosen with care and fits. The fascinating thing is that one can have ten people commenting, with complementary angles, all relevant – on voice, on plot, on characters, repetition, point of views, internal consistency, balance, readership and even marketability. Some evenings I am tempted to take on board all comments, on others to ignore them all. The key is to work out why people have said what they have said, what lies behind it, how relevant it is for the story one is writing and what solutions work, given the characters, the plot and one’s own narrative voice. Then the story stays one’s own, but more accessible and rewarding to others.

It is also great to meet both like-minded and differently-minded people with the same ambition of writing something that people would have fun reading.



Works-in-Progress: Plums Taste Different Here

WIPSarahHPhotoThe Brussels Writers’ Circle features members who are hard at work chipping away at various monumental and epoch-making pieces of literature. Or so we would hope. In this new segment, we interview Sarah Harris about her current masterpiece-in-the-making.

First off, what is it, novel/short story/non-fiction and what is it called?

It’s a novel called ‘Plums Taste Different Here’. It is contemporary fiction, similar to ‘The Road Home’ by Rose Tremain. I got the title from an Afghan refugee I got to know in Petit Chateau (a reception centre in Brussels for asylum seekers, web site here in French or in Dutch) who told me that he missed the fruit from his country because it tasted so different here.

Where and when does the action take place?

It’s set in present day Aberdeen and is about Malcolm, a middle-aged forester, who takes in a young Afghan asylum seeker called Jawid. Alma, an enthusiastic community worker, has set up a scheme pairing asylum seekers with people who have a spare room in their house and Malcolm is the first unwitting candidate. Since the death of his mother, Malcolm has led a solitary life and is more at ease with trees than with people. The authorities have decided Jawid is over 18 and therefore has to leave the children’s home where he’s been staying and is no longer eligible to have his family brought over here. Over time an unusual friendship is forged between Malcolm and Jawid but, unknown to Malcolm, Jawid is being blackmailed by a previous contact from the children’s home. In desperation Jawid decides to leave the country, but Malcolm isn’t willing to abandon him to his fate …

Aberdeen on a typically sunny day (honest!)

Aberdeen on a typically sunny day (honest!)

You were obviously inspired by current events in coming up with the storyline of this novel, can you tell us more about that?

WIPSarahHRefugeesI run poetry workshops and teach English to refugees in Petit Chateau and this last year there has been a huge increase of asylum seekers. In particular young people, mostly from Afghanistan, who arrive here without their families, and attempt to build a new life here. I have recently undertaken a training course to become a guardian for young non-accompanied asylum seekers, so have learnt more about their situation and how refugee policy works in Belgium. This all inspired me to write this story.

Which, if any, of Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ are you following?

I guess you could say that there’s element of voyage and return and also rebirth in the story. Basically it’s about an encounter between two very different people with very little in common and how this encounter shapes and changes them. And hopefully there’s humour in it too.

How long have you been working on it?

I started it a while ago as a short story but have only been working on it as a novel these last few months.

A work of great length?

No – maybe around 75000 words.

And where are you at now? Where are you going with it?

I’ve just finished chapter five so I’ve a long way to go. The two main characters have only just met each other. I usually take a few years to write a novel, but I hope this one won’t take so long.

How did the BWC help you in the course of your work? What was the best feedback you got from the group?

The BWC is a great source of inspiration – reading out gives me a deadline to work to and the feedback is always really useful. The main feedback I have got so far is that people want to read on, so I need to carry on writing. It’s really important for me to have people believe in it.

Who will (the final version of) your novel definitely not be suitable for?

I think it’s suitable for everyone but not everyone will be interested. There’s a lot of negative press about migration and you almost never hear about the possibilities and enrichment it can offer. There’s a sense of us and them about the issue, when in fact we are all economic migrants. Hopefully this will turn into a funny and uplifting story about it.

We assume that it will one day be published to universal acclaim and that a Hollywood blockbuster will be made from it. Which actors will play the principal roles?

Two unknowns – an Afghan asylum seeker and an unemployed Scot – who will both become rich and famous by acting in it!

Thanks and good luck with the current draft!



Brussels Writers’ Circle Retreat May 2016

Continuing with what some may now dare call a tradition, members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle gathered for its annual retreat at the Siddartha Centre in Tremelo in the heart of Flemish wine country on 20-22 May.  Although the number of participants was lower than in previous outings, a spell of sunny weather and an engaging pallet of both practical and discussion-based workshops allowed participants to open their minds, and their notebooks, and reflect on essential questions about their writing methods and practices.

After settling in and sharing dinner on Friday evening, retreat participants sat around the fire and broke the ice in a mind-meld activity that involved staring into each other’s eyes and transmitting poems to the other person by telepathy!

EVERetreatMay16NickPThe first morning session on Saturday was devoted to Writing Discipline.  Nick Parrott led the group in an open discussion, firstly about the constraints and blockages that prevent us from writing with serenity and efficiency, and then about strategies to remain motivated and inspired throughout the writing process.  Among the solutions found by the group were finding pleasure in writing, realizing and accepting one’s limitations of space and time, turning off or away from the internet, and sharing one’s work with others (and we all agree that the Brussels Writers’ Circle is a great place for that!).

EVERetreatMay16KevinThe second morning session conducted by Kevin Dwyer was more practical in nature and dealt with Story Design and Structure.  After considering a number of ways that stories are traditionally constructed (in scenes, acts, movements, sequences) participants were then invited in a collaborative exercise to build a structured scene based on characters created by other members of the group.

EVERetreatMay16PatrickThe outdoor afternoon sessions on Saturday also combined discussion and practice.  In a workshop on Writer’s Craft, Patrick ten Brink led the group in a wide-ranging and eye-opening discussion about narrative voice, internal dialogue, and point of view.  Brainstorming around the table, the group shared their approaches and preferences on how closely they as authors stay to their characters and on how to develop personal style and voice.

To conclude the Saturday sessions, Hamed Mobasser guided a workshop on Building Suspense.  Hamed emphasized that suspense is necessary in any type of storytelling and is based on the judicious planting of questions in the reader’s mind and then gradually revealing the answers to those questions as the story moves along.  The group was then invited to put these ideas into practice, with many discovering hidden talents as mystery and horror writers.


After pre-dinner walks and games, Saturday evening was devoted to meditation, discussion and a veritable orgy of wine and cheese by the fire.

A blurry shot of Hamed and Patrick, we assume not due to the amount of wine being drunk

A blurry shot of Hamed and Patrick, we assume not due to the amount of wine being drunk

The final session of the retreat on Sunday morning was devoted to a workshop by the tandem of Leda Papasokrati and Mimi Kunz on Writing Love in Fiction.  In a number of prompt-driven collective and individual exercises, participants brought love to the page, while Leda and Mimi tried to steer the group away from cliché and stereotype, despite the heart-shaped pink balloons.

During the Sunday afternoon feedback session, retreat participants expressed their unanimous appreciation for the mix of workshops and the overall convivial and challenging atmosphere of the weekend, none of which would have been possible without the devotion and care that Hamed put into the organization of the retreat.  Thank you Hamed!

Planning for next year’s retreat is already under way, so please check back here or on the Brussels Writers’ Circle Facebook page for further details as May 2017 approaches.