Category Archives: Creative writing

Always Take The Weather With You

The late Elmore Leonard, American novelist and screenwriter, famously advised would-be writers they should never start a book with descriptions of the weather.

It is one of the good ol’ writing tips that gets churned out at workshops and writing classes.  But what if your book is about meteorologists? Or a life-changing hurricane? Or Storm Louise (I kid you not)? Or perhaps you are writing about happy bunnies enjoying a picnic in the sun? Yes, well….

The weather is something we have plenty of here in Ireland. It is unlikely you’ll ever pass a day without talking about it. In the queue in the bank, garage, supermarket, chipper*, someone will strike up a conversation about rain/sunshine/rain/wind/rain/floods/rain/hurricanes/rain (well, I am in the Emerald Isle, and we don’t have our green status through being dry, dusty and drought-stricken).

Often, I think the weather is an easy small-talk opener: mention the unseasonal goings-on outside, and you might strike up a deeper conversation with a stranger, which could lead to, well, who knows where?

And of course, extreme weather is always newsworthy and a topic for us mere mortals to ponder. Of all the wonderful achievements of mankind, successful control of the weather isn’t one of them. Not even close.

I think there may even be a poem in there – along with something about Louise, the storm that never was.

When last year, Met Éireann and the UK Met Office revealed their storm names (for severe weather systems this side of the Atlantic), I was thrilled to discover there was a potential Storm Louise nestled between Kamil and Malcolm. The names are chosen annually, A-Z by popular choice, but missing some of the trickier letters. In 2017, we got as far as Storm Ewan in February, which followed Storm Doris when winds of 94mph were recorded. It is unlikely we’ll get as far as the ‘Ls’ before a new list of names takes effect. But I still feel some sort of attachment to the idea –  my grandmother’s name was Doris. And next year’s list includes Larry, which is what some people call my son Laurence.

If you’re still reading and you’d like a cheery three-minute interlude, click here for the song my title alludes to: Crowded House first released ‘Weather With You’ in 1992. And no brollies in sight!

*Chipper? I’m told this is Irish for fish and chip shop. Of course, I’m using poetic licence with reference to same – do I look like someone who’d know what went on inside such a place? No, please don’t answer!

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The Luck of the Draw

Ashley Cole

Touch wood, I don’t have to worry about being superstitious.

I mean, most of that stuff is just common sense isn’t it? You wouldn’t walk under a ladder if there’s someone up it with a bucket of something sloshable, would you? And why would you need an umbrella open in the house unless you had a very leaky roof? As for putting shoes – new or otherwise – on the table, who would do that?

We have a black cat in our house; I’m not sure if she is lucky or not. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you live, you might have different ideas about omens attached to black cats in your path. When ours get under my feet (she has a thing about cheese and can stir from a sound slumber three rooms away at the sound of the grater), I’m not sure which one of us is the luckiest. Me for not quite breaking my neck as I trip over her, or her for not quite getting trampled underfoot?

Incidentally, I have long been a cat ‘owner’ and thereby have got through many cat names, although I have a file on my laptop with more than 50 kitty names for future use. This black cat is called Ashley because, back when she was a kitten 12 years ago, she liked to chase balls. Football, black, Cole, Ashley – get it? Cheryl’s ex, back in the day.

Anyway, as I’ve already said, I’m not superstitious. Except that perhaps I’d like to be this week.

Some people think things come in threes and I’ve had two strokes of good luck in the past couple of days, so I’d quite like to believe there might be another, just around the corner. My good news is that I’ve (finally!) had a poem accepted for publication in the next Skylight 47 magazine – and I’ve been selected for a place on the Autumn Poetry Masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Maura Dooley in the Welsh Writers’ Centre at Tŷ Newydd. I had such a good time there in the Spring that I gushed all over this blog with the news. I may yet get to go the same way.

Meanwhile, I’m out looking for magpies. Two for joy, of course. The rest can keep away, thank you.

The Writer is ‘In’

Well, you wouldn’t expect anything less messy for my work space, would you? And flowers, of course.

You can tell when I’m ‘writing’.  The kitchen floor’s immaculate (yes, really), there are freshly baked scones in the tin, I have washed the car (yes, really), weeded the borders, walked the dog, groomed the cats, spent an hour on Twitter, done four loads of washing, and ironed my way to the bottom of the basket (yes, really).

In other words, I’ve put off the dreaded deed until I’ve completed one hundred zillion important chores which simply HAVE to be done before I can park my bum on the chair in front of my computer, and get down the actual job of writing.

When I get there, open up a file, and begin to flex those creative muscles, I usually wonder, what it is that’s made me so hesitant to get going?

Because I actually enjoy the process of writing.  I do a lot of it, one way or another. I write articles, poems, short stories, flash fiction (and dare I own up to having three adult novels and one children’s book on the go?), and most nights I write in my journal. I also write weekly letters to my sister and mother, usually longhand with a fountain pen (on water-marked Basildon Bond writing paper – how anachronistic is that?).

Of course, it is the fear of failure that holds me back. Which is why I don’t do sky-diving or ski-jumping, I guess. Which is daft, really, I know. After all, it is not the actual writing that can fail me – it is the publication, or rather, failure to achieve publication, which spoils it all. Back to that strange need for third party validation, which I’ll never quite get over.

In the past, I have aimed at getting a hundred submissions out over 12 months. That was a tall order, and I haven’t quite managed it yet. But my logic is that the more material out there being considered for competitions, or by magazines, newspapers and publishers, the better my chance of success. So, on days when I get one or two rejections, news of a competition shortlisting or publication in a magazine, is all the more sweet.

I have taken some annual leave this week with the intention of putting nose to the writing grindstone. My daughter and I (we are Luri Cole writing a thriller together) are so close to the finish line, we just need a final push. No distractions from visitors, or the garden (it hasn’t stopped raining for days – perfect writing weather), we have the space, the time, the equipment all in place.

So, what am I doing writing a blog post? Oops!

Word Juicing For Scribes

It can be quite difficult to keep coming up with new writing ideas and ways of making those creative juices flow (yes, I agree, that sounds borderline disgusting), but if you are looking for some writing inspiration, read on.

I run a lovely fortnightly creative writing group in the far reaches of County Mayo, Ireland, where we’re often looking for something to write about while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil (again). I thought I’d share some of our prompts and writing exercises, should you find yourself in a similar predicament.

In our group, we have writers of all abilities, from people who haven’t written anything more than a shopping list or a Facebook message since the Leaving Cert, to published writers who regularly win competitions and are working on grabbing the Man Booker Prize. We have a range of ages, backgrounds and (gasp!) we have men as well as women.

So, keeping everyone engaged can be a bit of a problem, not least because I never know who is going to turn up. We often have a feast or famine situation –  too many chairs around the table or not enough chocolate biscuits to go around.  A writing exercise will take twice as long to get through if there are twice as many participants as expected. And in the same way, we’ll get through twice as many prompts if there are only a few of us there.

We have great fun sometimes (well, I do and some of the members come back for more, so I’m guessing they do too).

One of the things I am always trying to do is get writers to try something different.  I will encourage poets to have a go at flash fiction, short story writers to have ago at memoir, and so on. Also, I try to shake up things by suggesting different points of view, time-frames and tenses, just to see what happens.

A quick starting point is my word box, the random words and phrases cut out of magazines and brochures which I’ve been collecting for years. (I’m aware you might think I write ransom notes, but I’m not that desperate. Yet.)

We might pick six words from the box and try to make them into a sentence or paragraph.  Better still if they make a story, or the start of one. If we all start with the same words, it is fascinating to see how each person uses them.

Then I throw in some challenges to move those ideas on and do that messy thing with creative juices and all, suggesting we take what we’ve already written and re-write it in another style. The styles are printed on scraps of paper and are drawn from a little bucket in the middle of the table.   You don’t see what you’ve chosen until you unfold the paper.  Like a Summer Fete raffle but without the prizes.

There will always be someone who complains they can’t possibly turn their newly scripted masterpiece into a breaking news story, or a women’s magazine confession, but it is always interesting when I force them to try.

So why not give it a go? Here are six snippets from my word box just to start you off:

BRIDGE;   FOLDING PAPER;  STIFLED;  GREEN GINGER;  COMMANDO;  WASH DAY

Make a very short, short story with them. Then accept the challenge to re-write it in one of these styles:

·         adult fairy story

·         Jamie Oliver recipe

·         breaking news story

·         school report entry

·         prayer to a patron saint

·         instruction manual

·         heartfelt love letter

·         paperback thriller blurb

·         Leaving Cert exam question

·         radio advert

·         women’s magazine confession

·         email to the boss

·         resignation letter

·         Hollywood film trailer

·         newspaper agony aunt reply

·         dinner party anecdote

·         politician’s acceptance speech

·         court room drama report

·         message to a house-sitter

·         Wild West bar room brawl

 

There.  I did warn you creative juices were messy, didn’t I?

Fur Coat and No Knickers?

One of the best things that ever happened to me was becoming a mother.

I can’t imagine what I would have found to do with my time without children to fill my every waking minute.  They still try do it, and they’re (allegedly) adults now. Although, these days I do sometimes manage to snatch a few hours free from them demanding what’s for dinner, or where are their socks/phone chargers/car keys (delete as appropriate).

It sounds like there are dozens of them. It only feels like that sometimes – they are just two, one of each, as they say. A son and a daughter, neither of whom has properly left home yet.

My own mother, pictured here with me many years ago (before my sister arrived on the scene), is now 93 years old.  She lives in a care home and is quite frail and  forgetful, which is sad because she used to be a very busy, capable, fit woman, who taught me loads.

She wrestled with barrage balloons at the tail end of the Second World War (as a member of the WRAF), succeeding as a feisty female in a male-dominated workplace. I have her to thank for my  brand of feminism, which has never let me accept failure just because I’m a woman.  At an early age I realised there were different rules for boys and girls, which just served to make me more determined to succeed. Women have to work harder in their careers to prove themselves – I was no exception, and was often bitter about such inequality. I like to think things won’t be so hard for the next generation.

My mother also taught me how to strive to become a domestic goddess, and I can still rustle up a Victoria Sponge, or sew a fine seam when the occasion arises.

These days, I have my mother to thank as a source of some of my more popular poetry.  She’s at the heart of my attempts to blend pathos with humour.

Here you go: Fur Coat and No Knickers (just in case it’s slipped past your attention so far).

Once Upon A Time

For the weekend that’s in it – a Bank Holiday here in Ireland – here are some short stories for you to enjoy.

I’ve been reading short stories since I was a teenager when I came across EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, which I think might have been on the O level English Literature curriculum, alongside ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ by DH Lawrence.

I haven’t stopped reading stories since, and these days I have a go at writing them, too. I’ve had ten published so far – but I’m keen to learn more about what makes them work, which is why I’m booked into a Short Fiction Workshop with writer Danielle McLaughlin at Listowel Writers’ Week (June 3rd and 4th 2017).

Here’s one of Danielle’s stories, first published in The New Yorker in September 2104, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’.

And a link to a blog post I wrote last year when I met that very author in a Cork bookshop.  She was minding her own business looking at books with her children and I was there buying her short story collection.

News was out earlier this year that Tom Hanks has turned his hand to writing and has a collection of short stories due for publication in the autumn. Here’s one he had published in The New Yorker  in October 2014: ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, do give it a go – but bear in mind that it was first published in 1909; the style is a bit wordy (at 12,000+ words it is really a novella), but the message about how humankind is on a path to self-destruction is chilling, and very pertinent to modern times.

There are plenty of other examples of good story writing available to view for free via the internet.  The New Yorker publishes some crackers, the Irish Times has the Hennessy New Irish Writing story once a month, and the Moth, The Stinging Fly, Crannóg and Banshee magazines all publish short stories and flash fiction.

Then there are the competitions – there are dozens, nay probably hundreds, out there.  Some I enter, some I don’t.  I take the view that someone has to win, so why not me? That modus operandi has worked a couple of times (thankfully) but isn’t foolproof. Reading the winning entries can be a revelation.

I haven’t won the Costa Short Story Competition, but Kit de Vaal did in 2014 with ‘The Old Man and the Suit’.

And Billy O’Callaghan’s story ‘The Boatman’ was runner-up in the Costa Competition last year.

Just because I think it’s a great read, here’s ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan from The New Yorker, February 2010 .

Raymond Carver wrote classic short stories; here’s one first published in 1989: ‘Little Things’.

And finally, here’s a link to one of my own short stories – one I’m still quite proud of, ‘Flying Lessons’.

And yes, I know, pride is a sin. Ah well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are We There Yet?

Chess, unfinished.

As a wordsmith, when do you ever know your work is done? By that I mean finished and complete with no more amendments and tweaks to be made.

It goes for most creative work – even cooking, you can keep going, adding more seasoning, stirring this way and that, changing the presentation as well as the content. Likewise with art in all its forms – another brush stroke here, an extra shave of the plane there, more this, less that. And so it goes with writing: more words, fewer, different order, wider vocabulary.

Recently, I ‘finished’ a major re-write of what I hope will eventually become a published poetry collection. I have sifted through my favourite poems and come up with about 75 that I think are now complete. That was after the Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last month (which I’ve burbled on about at length elsewhere on this blog).

I’ve now done enough workshops, classes and creative writing group sessions to think I might have finally got it (whatever ‘it’ is). Anyway, I’m starting to hawk my collection around the various poetry publishers. Shouldn’t take too long – hardly any of them accept cold calls (aka open submissions).

Then what? I shouldn’t expect failure, but I did consider trying the WB Yeats route. His sisters printed and hand-bound the early editions of his first published poetry. But there’s something in me that eschews self-publishing – I need that third-party validation thingy all the time. And anyway, I don’t have enough artistic sisters to take on the hand-crafted publication of my work.

Back to never being finished. I have just heard that I have taken third prize in the Oliver Goldsmith Festival Poetry Prize, which is another rather nice accolade, although the poem, ‘Concentric Circles’, is one of those that never seems to be finished. Every time I look at it, I change something, although clearly I thought it complete enough to enter in a competition.

I’m also trying to find a suitable title for my soon-to-be-published (!) collection. Another moveable feast – it has a different title every time I think about it, not least because it’s hard to categorise.

I heard Don Paterson, the poetry editor of Picador, talking at Poetry Ireland in  Dublin last month, and was greatly encouraged by his attitude to themed collections. Mine doesn’t have a theme – I write about life as I know it, the world around me, my family and other animals, that sort of thing.

‘Concentric Circles’ is a poem about a bachelor farmer. Living in rural Ireland that subject pops up every now and then, as do the themes of memory loss, aging parents, adult children, the cruelty of nature, life, love,  and the general desperation involved in being human.

Dead hares, jilted lovers, superstitions, refugees, hurricanes, home-made wine, care home smells, punctuation, Irish Diaspora, fossils, the River Liffey, Christmas excesses, horseflies, filial ties,  ecologically-sound fruit salad, sibling rivalry, parental approval, summer barbecues, the displaced and dispossessed, magpies, artisan baked bread, fur coats, spitting alpacas – there’s a lot of stuff mentioned in my poems.

But not really a thread running through which I could use to sew them together into a themed collection.

And then there’s the title. The title? Oh heck! Forget the finishing – where on earth do I start?

PS I give you a picture of Chess, the unfinished cat (he has no tail) for want of any better illustration