Category Archives: Creative writing

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…

 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Procrastination

So. You are going to have a Writing Day. No appointments, no need to leave the house, no distractions – the kitchen floor doesn’t even need mopping – brilliant! Ahead, a whole day of writing .

Here’s what you do:

First, take a nice view, preferably one with a lovely comfy chair in front. Settle down to spend some time relaxing into the moment (mindfulness – it’s all the rage these days), watching the birds/clouds/treetops/passersby/traffic (delete as appropriate).

Imagine what a wonderful poem you could write – a sonnet, perhaps, 14 lines of stunning verse with a twist in the middle – based on your view of such extraordinary ordinariness. Words are hopping through your head, time to pin them down. A villanelle might be the way to go. What about a pantoum? Choices, choices.

Start hunting for a notebook. Not any old pad of paper, discarded chocolate wrapper or old envelope as Emily Dickinson did (I kid you not), but your special hand-stitched, pink floral A5 lined velum pad, the one that’s part bujo and part writing journal, full of  good ideas and the beginnings of poems and stories that you really should get around to finishing.

It might take a while to find the book because along the way you’re going to stumble upon distractions like the post arriving, 22 unread messages in your inbox, and the houseplants crying out for a watering. Then there’s a cup of Earl Grey to brew and a packet of ginger biscuits to locate (that alone can take a while since you’ve hidden them for reasons known only to yourself and you can’t remember where).

At this point, your partner/best friend/neighbour/least favourite sibling/offspring may call for a chat, either in person because they know you’re at home and you’re only writing (which isn’t real work as everyone knows), or because they’re on the same network and like to get their money’s worth with the free calls.

When you can get back to your chair-with-a-view, you might have to ignore the stomach rumbling because it’s now almost lunchtime. But you realise that you don’t have your favourite pen to hand, the one you’ve written your best work with.  Not that you’re superstitious or anything, but why take the chance? Spilt salt over the shoulder and into the eye of the devil, right? (left actually); no walking under ladders (isn’t that just common sense?); no putting shoes on the table (who does that anyway?); no opened umbrellas indoors (no need surely, unless your roof has a leak, which is bad luck in itself).

So the pen with which you wrote your prizewinning poems has been put in a safe place so it doesn’t get lost. And although it is eventually found, it is then definitely time for lunch, because even writers need to eat. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy affair of more than an hour or two. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from scratch is nice, and you can check out the news headlines while its cooking, make a couple of cats purr at the same time, and dash off a few important WhatsApp messages to make good use of your time. And you know you shouldn’t bolt your food because indigestion isn’t conducive to creativity, is it?

So then it is well into the afternoon when you head back to the nice view, pen and notebook at the ready (because first draft poems have to be proper pen on proper paper, no exceptions).  Time to recapture the moment when you felt a poem coming on.

Drat!

A blank. Nothing. Not really writer’s block (which I’ve heard described as what happens when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you), more a memory lapse. You’ve forgot what were the right words in the right order.

Time to stare into space (or back at the lovely view) in an attempt to pluck appropriate words from the ether. The thesaurus might help, but where did you leave it? If you’ve the energy left to look for it, that might pass a few more minutes…

And there you have it. Procrastination.  Distraction. Writing. A whole day of it. There’s nothing to it really, is there?

In Praise Of. Punctuation!!!

wtf-1I’ve never been much taken with ‘experimental’ fiction, not least because all that stream-of-consciousness malarkey often eschews the rules of good grammar and punctuation.

It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged by what I’m reading (although sometimes I just want to read something that’s easy on the brain, in soothing, warm bath style), but frankly, reading some so-called experimental writing is just plain hard work.

And not worth the effort.

Sticking my head above the parapet here, but I’ve never got on with ‘Ulysses’ (or much else by James Joyce come to that). Gasp! Did I really own up to such heresy?

Of course there’s plenty more out there in the Ulysses mould. Endless tomes challenging the reader with stories that are inside out, back to front,  no beginning, middle or end, from multi or singular points of view (in the same sentence) and the like. Long pages of confusing metaphors, allusions, and vague references that could mean anything (and probably do).

But it’s the one long sentence trend that’s got me just lately. What’s. That. All. About? I mean, just what is wrong with proper punctuation?

eats-shoots-leavesI don’t know why punctuation matters so much to me, but it does. And I probably don’t always get it right, although I try. One of my most-thumbed reference books (beside my Roget’s Thesaurus) is ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss, enjoyable for me because I totally get it.

It’s not that I find poor grammar and punctuation unforgivable, just irritating when it’s from people who should know better. A whole novel in one sentence? Really? OK – but why?

I have a friend who is dyslexic and when she writes her annual Christmas letter to me, I don’t bat an eye-lid at the phonetic spelling and sprinkling of inappropriate apostrophes. I usually understand what she’s trying to say and I’m pleased to hear her news.

But if her efforts were to appear in print I’d be miffed. Not just because she’d beaten me to it (ha!), but because the pedant in me wants published material to follow certain rules of grammar and punctuation. And I fizz and grumble when it doesn’t.

And while I realise that not all experimental fiction is ungrammatical, why should novels written in one long, long sentence be held in such high esteem? I just don’t get it.

Of course, when I get around to reading Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ (which so many people are raving about) I’ll probably change my mind. I might even have a bash at one terribly long sentence myself, instead of trying to put together so many of my usually short ones.

Meanwhile. Let’s eat Grandma! Or: Let’s eat, Grandma! Or even: lets eat grandma because nothing else here makes sense…

Or you could try reading January’s story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing section of the Irish Times – one long sentence by Manus Boyle Tobin: The Drizzle on the Windscreen. I’m not sure how to say this, but I grudgingly admit that it works. And I rather like it!

Arresting Stuff

Rhiannon Cole - recent winner of Swansea University's award for the highest overall mark for a dissertation in Criminology.
Rhiannon Cole – recent winner of Swansea University’s award for the highest overall mark for a dissertation in Criminology.

So my daughter’s a criminal. No, no, that’s not right …. she’s a Criminologist.

Not quite the same thing, although she did once appear on TV’s Crimecall.  That was a few years ago when she was in Ireland’s version of the UK’s Crimewatch programme as a TV extra in a cold case story about a blonde, very pregnant missing person. Seeing my girl on national TV with a prosthetic baby bump was a bit unnerving, and it was a very sad story that still hasn’t been resolved (the Fiona Pender case).

My daughter’s interest in the dark side of life led to her move to Swansea to study for a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Not that there are many more baddies in Wales than anywhere else (so I’m reliably informed), but there was an excellent opportunity to study the genre at Swansea University. She’s just graduated and is now on the look-out for post that will enable her to demonstrate her specialist skills.

In the meantime, she’s been visiting me in here in Ireland and we’ve been doing more work on our psychological thriller, although it’s taking a tad longer to pull together than I’d hoped. We’re writing together as ‘Luri’ Cole (a combo of Rhiannon and Louise which we’re rather taken with).

But progress is a bit slow – not least because of the distractions. Rhiannon (she’d have to be half Welsh with such a name, eh?) has taken up genealogy. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since she’s found that she has, on her father’s side, a Welsh-speaking harpist forefather who was born just around the corner from where she now lives in Swansea.

We haven’t yet been able to confirm that this was the same Welsh harpist caught poaching rabbits on M’Lord’s estate in the mid-1800s, but it does look likely that the convicted felon is on that side of the family (on mine, all our ancestors are squeaky clean and virtuous, of course).

It sounds rather like the start of an exciting historical bodice-ripper, although we really need to get and finish our original joint-writing effort first.

Watch this space!