Category Archives: inspiration

Angelic Ever Afters

The Corti family, when were were still three. I’m the short one.

I find it difficult to write about my childhood.  Not because of disturbing memories of an unhappy past, but rather because it passed me by in something of a blur, and was relatively uneventful.

I realize that to call myself a writer, I should have some agonizing incidents from my formative years to draw on, but the sad truth is, I had a vague, happy childhood.

The sun always shone, I played hopscotch with my pals, and on Sundays we ate Angel Delight for afters.

Well, maybe it did, maybe I did, maybe we did, the truth is, I really can’t remember.

I can recall very few scenes from my girlhood with any clarity.  We were just an ordinary family.  I wasn’t abused by my parents.  No wicked uncles or dodgy neighbours interfered with me.  The priest and the nuns kept their hands to themselves.

Pretty dull, huh?

My mother didn’t get her belly-button pierced or have a fling with the milkman.  My father wasn’t a raving alcoholic and didn’t rob banks; it was all rather tame and suburban, somewhat anodyne for a writer’s muse. The most disturbing thing to happen was losing my status as an only child when I was six-and-three-quarters; I never quite forgave my parents for the ‘gift’ that was my sister!

My mother, a voracious reader and subject of many a sad poem these days, mostly stayed home to look after the family.  She baked her own cakes and biscuits and frowned upon anything out of a packet that was described as ‘convenience food’, except for sweet desserts like Angel Delight and Instant Whip.

She taught me how to rustle up a batch of scones and fairy cakes on a Sunday afternoon, how to knit and sew – and how reading a good book beats domestic chores hands down.

And although there was no unimaginable childhood misery to act as inspiration,  if pressed, I could probably write a few sweet words about instant desserts like Angel Delight or Instant Whip…

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In Pursuit of Happiness

What makes me happy? Could it be the same thing that brings a smile to your face?  It’s a trick question really because I have discovered there’s no simple answer. And the older I get, the more confused I become about the nature of happiness and its pursuit.

But I do know that this writing lark is something that brings light to my life. And third-party validation is what makes it all worthwhile. The kick from writing something that someone else gets, that moves them, or elicits their approval – well, that’s magic.

I have kept a journal for years –  I’m often to be heard banging on about how good it is for your mental health to keep a written account of your life. I keep different styles of journal at different times; the latest, a kind of bullet journal, is tracking my attempts to get fit, how many kilometres I walk every day, how many portions of fruit and veg, how many cups of green tea I’ve managed to finish (why is something so good for you so revolting?). I’m even tracking the weather, which is always interesting to look back on, books I’ve read, writing projects I’ve worked on, people I’ve seen.

But the bottom line is that my journal, and what’s in it, will always remain PRIVATE. It’s for my eyes only. I write down stuff to get it out of my head, and I have no intention of sharing it with anyone.

But all the other writing I do – articles, blogs, poems, short stories, flash fiction and now another (so far, half-finished) novel – I’m keen for people to read. I want to make a connection with other human beings, and in so doing, make myself (and hopefully others) happy.  Of course, writing is only one of the things that makes me happy – petting my cats, eating Marmite on toast, walking the dog, cooking vegetarian meals for my family, weekends away, driving too fast, music, reading, winning at Scrabble, all these things also bring me joy.

Just lately I’ve had a hell of a run of happiness, with one thing after another in my writing life resulting in ear to ear grinning and a life-affirming glow of satisfaction; I’d like to think it’s sustainable, but while I’m generally a glass half-full person, I can see that this level of good news is unlikely to continue ad nauseum. But I’m loving it while it’s here!

Here’s a glimpse of some of my happiness triggers recently. Interestingly, a lot of them are poetry-based, although as a writer, poetry isn’t all that I do: I have just spent a creative week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan; I have a book (a collection of poetry) at the proof stages, which will be launched at Strokestown Festival in May; Poet Eavan Boland has chosen one of my poems for publication in the next Poetry Ireland Review; one of my poems has been chosen for inclusion in the 2018 Strokestown Poetry Anthology; I have the opportunity to launch my collection at Boyle Arts Festival at the end of  July, with the lovely Jane Clarke doing the honours; I’ve won a contract to deliver 20 hours  of creative writing classes; and the icing on the cake, I have been nominated (for the second time) for a Hennessy Literary Award.

This is my happy face!

Yes, definitely happy, happy, happy –  that’s me!

Imagine that!

No, I can’t imagine, either

One of the best things about being a writer is having free reign with imagination. Writers can create whole worlds – plus all the creatures that live in them.  And they can make up characters and force them do whatever they like. What power!

There’s that fridge magnet/bumper sticker that says something like: ‘I’m a writer. Yes, of course you’re going to be in my book. You come to a grizzly end on page 27’.

I feel a bit that way at the moment as I’m writing a longer-than-usual short story based on something that’s been going on in my life lately. But the clue is in the word ‘story’. What I’m writing may be inspired by reality, by living people and actual events, but I’m putting such a twist on it, the characters will be unrecognisable to themselves (otherwise I get sued, of course). It’s called fiction and I love it! I’m having a great time changing the reality to suit myself. It might even have a happier ending than the real thing, I haven’t decided.

And sod all those writing gurus who say, ‘write  about what you know’. I’m all for writing what I’d like to know.

Chess (the feline one) imagining he has a chance here

Of course, it is unlikely I’ll ever *murder my husband, take a toy boy lover, eat raw steak, drive the wrong way down the motorway doing 100 mph, use cocaine, climb Mount Etna, learn to fly a helicopter, join an on-line dating agency, or learn to play the piano, but any of my characters can. I can make them do whatever I want (so there), and I hope that by now, after all these years of practice, I can make their lives convincing to the reader.

And aren’t we lucky to have the research tool that is the Internet at our fingertips? If we don’t know how something works, someone will have put a You Tube video on line to explain. Research for writers is a doddle these days (so long as you trust your source).

My own life has been quite interesting so far, so I’ve a deep well of personal experience to dip into. I have insider information about all kinds of activities, including keeping alpacas and bees; polytunnel growing and selling organic veg in farmers’ markets; camping and outdoor survival; Austin Sevens and ships in bottles; treasure hunting and archaeology; hot air ballooning and light aircraft. And that was just last week (!).

I’m still trying to figure what names suit my fictional characters best and although I think I’ve decided, I’m going to have to proof-read very carefully when I’ve finished, after I discovered in an early first draft I’d used the name of the real person (oops!).

Killing off characters, making them scruffy, ugly or fat, giving them tattoos and bad breath, making them jump off a cliff. How cathartic is that for a writer with imagination and issues!

*In case you’re wondering, only one of these things is a vague possibility for me, but I’m not saying which.

And if you’re nice to me, I won’t let you get killed off until page 500.

The Numbers Game

Bit of a tenuous link, but this kitty’s name was Seven…

I’ve been crunching numbers over the past few days, trying to figure (excuse the pun) if I should take up a new pastime. This writing lark has cost me a lot of money one way or another (residential poetry masterclasses don’t come cheap), and I’ve managed to crawl to my 100th submission this year.

That averages out at less than nine submissions a month, which doesn’t sound too excessive. And included in ‘submissions’ are applications for grants, pitches for freelance articles, and several other writing activities.

I enter a lot of free writing competitions (there are a lot about), and  journals and magazines are free to send to. But there are a good few competitions with a hefty entry fee which I’ve succumbed to. Like the Moth Poetry Prize – I wasn’t going to bother because it is €12 a pop, but the prize is a cool €10,000 (for ONE poem, yes you read right!). So I view it rather like buying a lottery ticket, you’ve got to be in it to win it, although the odds on me winning are slim – not because my poem is rubbish (well, I don’t think so), but because there’s so much (ahem) competition.

The kudos of winning, or being placed in competitions, is what drives most writers to enter – but the cash prizes can be significant, too. I’m writing this on a laptop I bought with the winnings from a short story competition 18 months ago.

I was helping to number the entries in the Strokestown International Poetry Competition at the beginning of December.  Poacher turned gamekeeper, I found the behind-the-scenes activities a real eye-opener. Until then, I’d never really thought much about what happens after I hit the ‘send’ button.

In the case of Strokestown, the original poems are kept on file and two copies of each are printed to be sent to the judges. Before the poems leave the office, they are made anonymous, save for a reference number. It makes for a level playing field, so it doesn’t matter who you are or who you know, it’s the poem that counts.

The sheer volume of poems –  sadly, I didn’t have time to read any of them – was mind-blowing. The competition attracts entries from all over the world, including India, Japan, Canada, USA, the UK, and of course, Ireland.

And get this, there were 1,261 poems vying for the top prize of €2,000, a writer’s retreat at Anam Cara, and publication in the Strokestown Poetry Anthology. That’s five reams of paper…

If you missed the annual Strokestown competitions (there was the Percy French competition for comic verse and an Irish language poetry competition, too), there’s another just opened to mark the Festival’s 20th anniversary. That’s in addition to the Roscommon Poet’s Prize and the School Poetry Prizes. Phew, that’s a lot of poems!

Count the petals? Or be inspired to write a poem – this is one of the prompts.

This new on-line only competition offers 20 picture prompts, and suitably inspired writers are invited to create up to 20 lines of poetry. There will be 20 prizes – a first of €100 and 19 of €20. And all 20 poems will be displayed alongside the images during Strokestown Poetry Festival, May 3rd – 7th 2018.

The judge is poet Noelle Lynskey, and details are on the website here.

Now, what’s there not to like about those numbers?

Oh, and for the day that’s in it (as they say around here): “Happy Christmas!”

Reinventing the Wheel (or not)

Nope, doesn’t need work- the basic design is sound…

I have kept my head down lately, trying to complete some half-finished writing projects, not least because there seems to have been an unusually high number of competitions and submission opportunities this month.

I’m still out there, trying my luck with poetry, flash fiction and stories (and wondering if I’ll ever find time to finish my ‘prize-winning’ novel!).

At the Skylight 47 launch, me and Jessamine. I am the short one.

Proof that persistence pays off has been publication this month of my poem in literary magazine Skylight 47.   I went down to Galway for the launch with my friend *Jessamine O Connor,  who was representing the Hermit Collective, featured in this edition. We both got to read our poems, with a warm reception from a good sized audience, which was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. The magazine was launched by lovely poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.

Meanwhile,  although I’m rarely short of new ideas, I have recently  found myself recommending all writers have a go at revisiting some of their own old work from time to time –  after all, why reinvent the wheel? Now that’s not  suggesting you go off with someone else’s material, that’s plagiarism and is not what I’m on about here.

I’m talking about how a sideways look at something you wrote ages ago might just present a new opportunity. Often, old work can benefit from a refit.

Just because a story or poem has been rejected by a publisher, magazine or competition, doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something else with it. It may not have been what the publisher or judge was looking for at the time, but if you thought it was good enough once, why not again? And why should one really good idea be confined to a single form?

In my case, I’m often flirting with old flames (literary ones, of course) – I’ve even won a short story competition with a piece that started out as a poem, and I’ve recycled (upcycled?) poems into flash fiction and been subsequently competition shortlisted.

As I said, why reinvent the wheel?

*Jessamine O Connor launches her latest book of poetry ‘Pact’ on Friday, December 8th at King House, in Boyle, County Roscommon (ROI). She’s invited a few other poets to read some of their work too – and I’m one of them. A 5pm start – all welcome!

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?