The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent

writingessentialsI was asked recently what makes ‘good’ writing?

Someone who describes themselves as a ‘novice writer’ wanted to know how she could recognise good, better, best.

Ha! She probably wished she hadn’t lit that particular touchpaper as I launched into a major rant.

Let me tell you what makes good writing – personal taste. It really is that simple.

If you want to get published, there’s the need to swallow a zeitgeist tablet, too. But really, if you are a writer enjoying the process of writing, you should not to be bullied by literary snobs or talked down from the enjoyment of something that may not be likely to win a high-brow literary competition or published in a ‘worthy’ journal.arbor

Whatever you are reading and writing – trust me on this one – if you like it, it’s ‘good’ enough, regardless of what anyone else has to say. Popular and mainstream don’t necessarily mean ‘good’ either. Although, that’s not to say a writer can get away with poor grammar, badly constructed sentences, mis-placed punctuation and the rest.

And then, of course, a beautiful way with words is special and means many, many people might agree such writing is ‘good’.

All those books waiting to be read…

Deconstruct a prize-winning story or poem (or novel) and you should find some gems that sparkle, intriguing language, seamless construction, clever premise, good ideas. Yet sometimes, just sometimes, you get the hint of the Emperor’s New Clothes going on.

Picture the scene: there’s a new story published by a well-known writer in a respected journal. You know you should like it because you’ve admired a lot of their previous work, but this time you think it is over-rated and definitely not up to scratch. And you suspect others may have the same view.

In my case, I might steer clear of social media abuse by not commenting at all (see how I’m not naming names here?). But it’s OK not to like something, or conversely, to like it if no-one else does. How public you go with your views is another thing entirely.

Whether you are writing for Ireland’s Own or the New Yorker, the Guardian or your local parish magazine, there are zillions of readers out there, all with different tastes. If you like what you’ve written, then the chances are, someone else will too. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Communication? Connecting with fellow humans who are on your wavelength?

I write (and read) mostly for entertainment, sometimes for information and education, but always I want it to be an enjoyable pastime. I will read material that may be ‘difficult’, distressing or disturbing, but it has to have an element of entertainment, and I will rate it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on my own personal views. But I might not reveal my opinions unless it’s one of those rare days when I’m spoiling for a fight.


Of course, it can’t do any harm to be influenced by other writers you respect, so when a book is endorsed by someone you like, why wouldn’t you give it a go? Doesn’t mean to say you HAVE TO like their recommendations though – make up your own mind. In my case, I’ve had poetry endorsed by Carol Ann Duffy, Dermot Bolger, Jane Clarke and Rita Ann Higgins, and I’ve had short stories selected for publication by Billy O’Callaghan. Doesn’t mean you’re going to like them too (although I’d be thrilled if you did!).

Because it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Like so many things in life, literary taste (thankfully) does not come with a one-size-fits-all label.



Time to get real

Kitten(ish) Betty with a recent Poetry Bus magazine I have a poem in

In the last 48 hours, I thought the Universe was going all out to get me to give up the writing. I’m a little shame-faced to admit why: I hadn’t backed-up a number of important files, thinking my trusted old laptop was invincible.

But guess what?

Gasp of outrage that this could happen to ME! I used to laugh at people that happened to. Didn’t back-up? Ha, ha, ha! (Spoiler alert, my story has a happy ending).

Of course, I did a major back-up of all my laptop files recently. I’m very particular about that, do it regularly. It is now October. Last back-up turned out to be in MAY. The beginning of May. Yikes!

So, I bawled my eyes out thinking if the last five months of work were lost, perhaps it was a sign?  Maybe I should be taking this as a message from the Universe* to use my ‘talents’ elsewhere? I couldn’t possibly re-write from scratch the stories/poems/novel chapters I’ve been working on lately (I’ve been a creative whirlwind). I’d have to scrap the lot, give up, and try taking on the mantle of domestic goddess again instead.

I started by baking an apple pie.

That kept me busy for an hour. Then I wrote a poem about apple pies.

Damn! Seems I’m compulsive, gotta write (I used a pen and paper, incidentally).

I’m quite fond of this laptop and it has been my trusty companion since it was purchased with the winnings of a short story competition four and a half years ago (and yes, I know the keyboard letters are now wearing out, they get a lot of use). It has never let me down before, so I was unprepared for a personal meltdown when it crashed.

Spot the worn out keys!

Fortunately, I grew my own computer nerd, who has an even nerdier mate who  eventually managed to return my laptop to its former state.  I’m incredibly grateful to my son and his friend for spending so much time fixing it.

In my defence, being compromised by a computer crash is not because I’m some Luddite who hasn’t the know-how to do back-ups, it’s all to do with the passage of time.

Something to do with the reality of the speed of time’s passing, and my perception of it.

It was my birthday a couple of weeks back. Er, no, that was three months ago.

We were at the Farmers’ Market last weekend. No, it was last month.

I did a poetry reading in Dublin a month or two ago. Um, that was in April

Betty is only just out of kittenhood. What? She’s 12? No way!

Jeez, where does the time go?

What seemed to make everything worse was me thinking I’d at least backed up my Scrivener files with the latest version of the novel I’m 94,000 words into (I’m at the detailed editing stage now). I thought I’d copied them onto a pen-drive a few days before the Big Crash. Turned out, I’d copied chapter headings, not content.  So perhaps I’m not as tech-savvie as I make out?

Anyway, it’s Christmas any minute now, isn’t it? Thought so 😊

*My smart boy explained the message from the Universe was not for me to stop writing, but to learn how to save (often) to the Cloud!

The Walking Unread

A selection of the anthologies and journals I need to get around to reading…

I’m not usually looking for something to read – my bedside table groans under the weight of many  books, and I’ve often my nose in several tomes at once (I’ve the right shaped nose for such feats). And I admit to being swayed by the hype from social media when there’s something new everyone’s talking about (hello Booker longlist), so the to-be-read pile is ever-growing.

Twenty poets in here, including me!

But one day last week I plucked from the heap of unreads an anthology I have a story in. Not a recent one, but one from last year which I hadn’t bothered to finish before. And wow! What lot of lovely new writing. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but…

I’m probably not the only writer who opens a newly-arrived anthology to check what the publisher has done with my work. I’ll then run through the other names in the index and if there’s no-one familiar, set the book aside for another time. Which often never comes (mea culpa).

In the last five years I’ve appeared in 29 print anthologies and journals, which adds up to a lot of reading material. I’ve put myself forward for publication like this because its great to see my work in print, and it is supposed to be good for the writing CV, that magic thing known as ‘exposure’, supposedly what publishers look for when they’re considering a writer as a viable investment.

Here’s a recent anthology I’ve nearly finished reading – intriguing stories chosen by Billy O’Callaghan, including one by me

There’s the public validation thing going on as well –  it’s great to know someone likes my writing, someone who isn’t related by blood or marriage.

So, here I am blinking in the bright light after (nearly) putting the final touches to a new collection of poetry, looking for something distracting to do. It has to be something related to the written word of course, although I also enjoy walking, gardening and baking (not all at the same time though).

So what? So I have now tasked myself with getting down to read every word of all the multi-author publications I’m in, a bit ashamed to admit I’ve not done it before, I’ve just dipped in and out.

So here goes. With a following wind, I should be finished by Christmas.

Concerning the Chopping of Onions

Louise G Cole and Billy Collins
The look of disbelief is hard to disguise. Louise G with Billy Collins

You might know the ‘G’ in my name covers Giddy, Gush and Gabble?

No wonder – I’m trying to decide which part of yesterday’s memorable birthday was the best. Maybe all of it? Coffee and a chat with legendary American poet Billy Collins, then being showered with wonderful gifts when I got home, one of which was a canvas print of a photo from last year’s Hennessy Award.

Even if you don’t like poetry, you’ve gotta be impressed that I had a Dublin pub named after me, if only for a weekend! My lovely family had heard me claiming I was giving up the writing (I lie a lot, that’s what addicts do), and they wanted to remind me what happened last year.

And if you do like poetry, you might be impressed that Billy Collins bought me a coffee and talked to me about poetry, onions, mothers, and other stuff.

This week, alongside another 11 writers, I won a place at the Billy Collins Poetry Workshop at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Well, just being there was enough to make me giddy (it is easily done) since he’s a former US Poet Laureate and I’ve loved his work for several years now (I’m a late starter here, forgive me). The poem of mine we workshopped was about chopping onions, my mother, and grief (the last two being common themes recently), and that was enough, I was happy to have had my work read by such an iconic modern poet.

Workshop participants were asked what they hoped to get from the session, and I think I gabbled something about wanting advice about being stymied by first winning the Hennessy last year and then being chosen for publication by Carol Ann Duffy (when she was UK Poet Laureate). I’ve hardly written anything since (well, anything I’m ready to share). How to get past that? Later, I was surprised to hear this is not an uncommon experience, and in the Irish idiom, I need to get over myself.

That aside, the workshop taught me a lot about poetic titles, endings and pace, which was invaluable. The next evening was a demonstration of how all that works, as Billy Collins read to a packed, appreciative audience.

I’d never been to the John Hewitt International Summer School before – I’d never been to Armagh either, and discovered it is lovely, even in a heatwave!

The week-long festival was a delight of all things literary, with talks, workshops, performances and readings. There was a pop-up bookshop that accepted plastic (which everyone knows isn’t like spending real money), and I networked my ass off (to coin a phrase). Brilliant!

One highlight was a reading by Kevin Barry, newly longlisted Booker nominee, interviewed by Jan Carson. I’ve just read ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ and found it great entertainment. If you know me, you’d be surprised to hear recommendation of a book I’d described on Twitter as being ‘seedy, sexy, foul-mouthed, intriguing – poetic’. It isn’t for the feint hearted, but oh, the language, the clever turn of phrase, the needle-sharp Irish expressions, the humour. Vile characters so deftly drawn, I found myself caring about what happened to them, which is quite a fiction-writing feat.

I’m probably not going to get sick of this image 🙂

And the other highlight? Yep, as I left yesterday, revealing to Billy Collins it was my birthday, and having him invite me for a coffee and spend 40 minutes chatting about my work. And unexpectedly, him asking me to inscribe a copy of ‘Soft Touch’ for him. No idea if the book is heading America-wards (I appreciate travellers have to carry luggage), but hey, how about that? No wonder I’m giddy and gushing.

And just in case you’ve got this far, the ‘G’ is really for Gillian.

Watch Billy Collins on Youtube here . My favourite bit starts at 12.53 when he reads ‘To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl’, which you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever had anything to do with teenagers 🙂   

Draft Dodging. Not.

I won a short story competition this week and now have some lovely comments about structure and style ringing in my ears. I’m flattered the judge, Dr Kevin Hora, liked ‘The Potential Pleasure of New Soft Furnishings’ enough to award me the 2019 *New Roscommon Writing Prize. It’s worth €500, which for 2,000 words is good payback!

After the presentation, as everyone was scrambling to line up for the cameras, Kevin quietly asked me how many times I’d re-written the story. I owned up to many, many drafts, 10 wouldn’t be unusual, neither would 20. I’m always wanting to improve, although I rarely count drafts.

This particular story had its beginnings in the creative space that is the **Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan (ROI), where I’d retreated for a week last year with the intention of writing more poetry. I was still giddy after being chosen for publication by Carol Ann Duffy, the then UK Poet Laureate. I needed to spend some time writing new poems.

So of course, I began a short story or two.

Lots of revisions later, I thought I might be ready to enter a couple of competitions with them. One became a local winner, the other was shortlisted in a national competition, which will be revealed next month.

“The difficulty is in knowing when I’m finished,” I confessed to Kevin as we grinned for the cameras.

He nodded sagely. “I could tell your story had been worked on because it was well polished. And you knew exactly when to stop,” he said.

Truth is, with such an uplifting element to this writing lark, one way or another I’m never going to be able to stop, am I?

* My win in Roscommon is something of an object lesson in persistence – I have entered every year since the competition began in 2014 and have been shortlisted a few times. This win was sixth time lucky.

** I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (aka Annaghmakerrig) three times last year, twice by spending my children’s inheritance, and once with a bursary from Roscommon County Council’s Arts Office, for which I am very grateful.

A Gloom of One’s Own

Annaghmakerrig rhododendrons are inspiring, right?

Inspiration is a funny old thing – one minute it is there slapping you in the face, insisting you write, write and then write some more, next it has disappeared into the ether without a trace and you are left wondering what on earth to write about. And whatever made you (me) think writing for publication was a good idea?

The secret is of course, to carry on regardless, ignoring the helpless feeling of being uninspired, and just empty your head onto paper. Messy, I know, but the muse often has a way of creeping back to take a look at what you’re up to – and then suddenly, you’re an item again, inspired.

There, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, yet recently I’ve been beset by doubts and have found it difficult to get anything much down on paper.

Rejections and disappointment will do that to you, but I know they’re part of a writer’s life. Social media has a lot to answer for – watching other writers blossom, while I seem to have disappeared under a stone. I shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else, but it can be difficult not to sometimes…

Success and failure are frequent bedfellows for a writer, everyone will tell you that. I’ve had quite a few writing knock-backs recently, plus some personal sadness to deal with, which has left me a bit gloomy and uncreative.  That’s despite having had a great year as a poet (which was unexpected – I didn’t know until fairly recently I could write poetry anyone else wanted to read).

Mind you, it is good that rejections for a writer can stay mostly private. I don’t need to tell you which magazines and journals have turned down my work, or which competitions I’ve failed to get shortlisted for.

But I can tell you about the ones who like my writing. And I’m very, very happy to report that a story of mine has surfaced as a success. It’s been a while since any of my short fiction was published, but a new short story is due for publication in a Cork Libraries anthology. It didn’t win but was shortlisted in the ‘From the Well’ competition judged by author Billy O’Callaghan, resulting in publication. I was in a similar anthology back in 2015.

Meanwhile, the journal The Ogham Stone is about to be published (in June) and this time includes a poem of mine, which I’m thrilled about.

And then there’s another anthology published this week in the UK, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Laureate’s Choice’, featuring the 20 newcomers she chose to champion as Poet Laureate. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like an exciting project to be part of… yes, me, I’m in there!

And while all that’s going on, I’m hiding away in County Monaghan trying to be creative, without distractions, enjoying another writing retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (and I’m grateful for the promised support of County Roscommon Arts Office which enables me to be here).

Now. Here, muse, muse, muse. Are you here? There? Anywhere?

Filling in the Gaps

I was reading a story in this occasion. I am using poetic licence here…

Trying to find new ways to say old things can be a bit wearing. In my case, wearing on the old computer keyboard.

My laptop was bought with the winnings from a short story competition in…damn, was it really three years ago? Anyway, I’ve worn the face off some of the keys. A R E S T to be precise. I don’t touch-type, but I know my way around a keyboard, so it is no real bother for me.

I’m even trying to squeeze a poem out of the scenario, all about naked keys, worn to the bone. I think the concept needs a bit of work (because I could always re-label the keys if I wanted).

Some poems jump out of the ether and hit you between the eyes, they just have to take on a form. Others have to be coaxed from a vague idea, some can be prompted by workshop triggers. I’ve even dreamt some words of poetry before now. Mostly, it’s a single good idea seeping into my consciousness, which is then worked and worked at until it takes shape as a poem. Easy!

It is Poetry Day Ireland next week (May 2nd) when people far and wide are encouraged to dive into poetry, with the theme of ‘Truth or Dare’. I’m doing my bit by running a short poetry workshop: ‘Finding a grain of truth in the fiction of poetry’.

This will be taking a look at how you can bend the truth to suit the occasion and leave your readers guessing as to which bit of the poem is true.  I do this all the time, confident that if I’m challenged, I can just say writers don’t lie as such, they use their imagination and call it fiction. In particular, I’ll be pulling apart one of my own poems, ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’ to demonstrate my point, and also I’ll be looking at some other poets’ work.

Then there’ll be a brief reading (me gasping through a few of my recent ditties) followed by an open mic for anyone to come and share poetry, their own or someone else’s. There’ll even be tea and coffee and a few biscuits. Its free of charge, is from 10.30am to 12.30pm, in Charlestown Arts Centre in County Mayo, Ireland, (above the town library in Barrack Street) and there is no booking required – just turn up with a pen and paper.

I’m looking forward to this event, not least because it is exclusively poetry. At the writing groups I run, there’s often a collective groan at the prospect of poetry. Anyway, we like to chop and change genres to keep things interesting as a lot of the members like to write memoir, prose and short stories. I’d love to inspire them to enjoy writing poetry though, and I’m working on it…

Meanwhile, my big break is a few days after this workshop when I’ll have a reading in Strokestown Park House at 3pm on Sunday, May 5th when I’ll share the stage with Iggy McGovern. Its part of Strokestown Poetry Festival, which takes place in County Roscommon over the Bank Holiday weekend. More details here. There’s an anthology out, too – with a new poem of mine. Last year’s anthology poem was about my father, so I thought for balance I’d better have one about my mother. It’s called ‘Learning to Sew’. You can buy the book here.

Better still, come along to Strokestown Poetry Festival and head for the pop-up book shop where my books (and a goodly number of others) will be on sale.

Reading, writing and other stuff from Louise G Cole, winner of Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry 2018