Category Archives: Creative writing

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

The Boy Stood On The Burning Deck

Last year I was lamenting the potential demise of Strokestown Poetry Festival – Ireland’s longest running poetry event.  Thankfully, enough people rattled the right cages for the funding to get re-instated, and the festival goes ahead as planned this year, starting on April 28th.

Once again I am short listed in the Roscommon Poet’s Prize, and I’ll get to read my entry at the prizegiving ceremony in the lovely Strokestown House. It’s on at 10.30am on a (Bank Holiday) Monday, so if you can’t get there in person (I might struggle a bit myself), you can read the poem at your leisure here. I’ve taken third place in the last two competitions, and I’m thrilled to have been shortlisted again.

My head’s in poetry mode just now; I’m looking forward to Poetry Day Ireland on April 27th when some of my poems will be on display in the Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, and nearer to home in Ballaghaderreen Library, County Roscommon. I’ll be in Dublin that day taking part in ‘Mind your own Business’, a seminar on the practical side of being a poet, organised by Poetry Ireland and Words Ireland.

But before then I’ll be heading off to Wales to take part in the Spring Poetry Masterclass with the UK’s Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the Welsh National Poet Gillian Clarke.

I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning since the news broke that I have been selected to take part at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales. I shall probably spend the week totally star-struck and in awe of the huge talent of these two writers – they’re among my favourite poets, of course.

I’m hoping some of the magic will rub off and in less than a week I can become a proper poet myself. Abracadabra, just like that!

Well, I can dream, eh?

Crossing The Language Barrier

This article first appeared in the Roscommon Herald’s ‘The Write Note’ feature in September 2015. I damn well figured 2017 might be time to re-publish. Bloody hell Harry, and all that…

When I first came to Ireland more than a decade ago, I was shocked by the language.  I don’t mean Gaeilge (although that’s startling enough to the English ear) I mean the Irish twist on Anglo Saxon vernacular.  Swearing, in other words.

I am married to a serial curser, and my sister’s married to a sailor, so I’ve heard quite a lot of fruity language in my time. But it seems that what used to be called ‘foul language’ is now quite mainstream, an everyday occurrence, especially in Ireland. What I always thought of as rude words are now pouring out of the radio, on our TV screens, headlining newspaper and magazine articles, and that’s without mentioning graffiti and artwork.

And it’s not just the gutter press and reality TV where the language is colourful. Pick up any novel described as ‘literary’ or a magazine publishing modern fiction, and you can be sure of a stream of abuse littering the text. It seems it is not enough to express yourself using a clever selection of the million or so words in the English language. No, in order to be at the cutting edge of the literary scene you have to include a liberal sprinkling of profanities in your work. That makes it realistic, I’m told. And describe your writing as ‘experimental’ and forgo all rules of grammar and punctuation and you’re on to a winner, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I just wonder when it became so acceptable to swear all the time? In my day, my mother would have had me to the kitchen sink to wash my mouth out with soap and water if I’d only so much as whispered the word that rhymes with sit. She probably only ever did it once – but it had the desired effect and I don’t often swear.

But brought up in Ireland, my own children frequently and cheerfully curse each other, which seems to render the words meaningless. But then if I join in, it stops them in their tracks because I so rarely swear, when I do it has intent and is thereby shocking.

And that’s my point really. Can’t we go back to respecting language in all its forms and save the bad words for compelling, dramatic effect?  I’ve no fecking idea how to make that happen, of course. Perhaps I’ll just start with a swear box…