Category Archives: inspiration

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!”

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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?

Pet Shop Noise

Lenny, the nearest we got to having a pet alpaca

I can’t remember how I ever came to think that keeping alpacas was a good idea. We imported a small herd of them into Ireland in 2003, convinced they would make us a fortune and they’d become pets, alongside the laying hens and lying cats.

Trust me, alpacas don’t make friends with humans.  They like other alpacas, of course. But they only ever tolerate humans, no matter how nice you are to them. Ours had a very cushy billet in the west of Ireland, and thankfully, they rarely spat at us.  The spitting thing is a way of keeping order amongst themselves and it’s nasty if you get in the way – half-digested grass which is green, slimy and very smelly. And if it gets on your clothes, it is practically impossible to remove the stain.

We brought our alpacas over from Worcestershire via Scotland and Northern Ireland on a night when the skies were lit up with the Aurora Borealis.  A memorable evening, which of course, I turned into a poem.

I have read the poem at a few functions recently, recalling that amazing evening when the sky was green and red and we thought that was the norm (we got that wrong as well, never seen the Northern Lights since).

We eventually found the alpacas new homes, but not before we’d collected a goodly amount of fleece from them over several years. I learnt to spin and discovered alpaca makes a lovely soft, hard-wearing yarn for knitting and crochet.

And to think, I used to be frightened of dogs…

I’ve been thinking a lot about pets, and how humans enjoy keeping companion animals. And I was considering what some people think of as pets, exotic creatures such as monkeys, or snakes, or iguanas.  Even alpacas.

My mate, Tully

My first choice of pet will always be a tabby cat (like my third birthday present), but any cat will do really (rescued, not bred to be sold), plus now my dog, who is a surprising friend to me, given that I spent many years being terrified of her kind.

And if nothing else, pets can serve as inspiration for poems.  Just for the craic, here’s a ditty I wrote ages ago about our white hamster, sadly a pet I never photographed.

Snowball, a Hamster
The cat has a mouse again
and it makes me consider
how many more fortunate,
furry creatures we have kept,
pets to nurture and cherish.
There have been many:
cats, rabbits, a dog,
more cats,
and Snowball, a white hamster
carefully named by a six-year-old
who instantly lost interest.
He used to live in my study
(the hamster, not the child),
well away from feline temptation.
I’d let him skip along my desk
as I tried to write my memoirs
(the child, as well as the hamster).
When the time came
and poor Snowball ailed,
we took him in a shoe box
to the vet’s evening surgery,
humane dispatch for a fiver,
ahead of a State funeral,
with flowers and speeches,
even a few tears.
The shovel, or a brick,
would have been cheaper
to put him out of his misery,
but none of us could do it
(even the six-year-old,
who was really seven by now).
I remember how in his prime
Snowball would run across
my keyboard leaving a trail,
black pellets of rodent incontinence,
which I would eventually scoop up
and turn into a poem.

 

 

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).

A Shed Called London

GBS called his writing shed ‘London’

I want a shed. Pretty please. Somewhere I can hide away and write my masterpiece. And wallow in self-pity, should the need arise.

Of course, a week-long writer’s retreat in Monaghan might help get me started on the masterpiece, but it appears that’s not to be – more of that later.

But what is it about wanting a room of one’s own? I’ve written before about how much I long for my own space, claiming the lack of same is what’s holding me back from becoming (ahem) a best-selling novelist/children’s author/poet/playwright (delete as appropriate).

But of course, I know it isn’t about where you write – 20 years after Harry Potter’s first appearance on the bookshelves there are all these nostalgic videos around showing JK Rowling scribbling in an Edinburgh café. It’s about what you write, like wizards and magic stuff.

Plus, there are plenty of people who have written beautiful material in bus shelters or airports, at kitchen tables and the like, while nursing babies/sick children/elderly parents/bombastic bosses/unsympathetic partners (again, delete as appropriate).

So why am I yearning for a shed of my own? Don’t I know all my papers would get damp in there? Where would we put it? Who would paint it a nice shade of green? Who’d clean the windows and put up some shelves? And I’m not that keen on spiders or earwigs…

George Bernard Shaw had a shed at the bottom of his garden in Hertfordshire. He reportedly called it ‘London’ so the maid could truthfully turn away unwanted callers with news that the boss was ‘in London’. It was a specially designed hut built on a revolving platform so it could be turned (with a quick shove) to catch the whole day’s sunshine.

That man (with a July 26th birthday and a vegetarian taste in food) was way ahead of his time! His shed had a typewriter, telephone and electric heaters – and he wrote some of his most famous work there, including ‘Pygmalion’. By the time he died in 1950 aged 94, he had written fifty-two plays and five novels, and said he always tried to produce at least five pages of writing every day.

I had wanted to write at least five pages a day on retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan – everyone I know who has been there tells me it is a wonderful creative opportunity for writers. But I can’t convince them that I’m a worthy candidate for a residency. My second direct application has now failed (another indirect one was turned down earlier this year). The upsetting bit today (June 28th) was they clearly hadn’t bothered to review my new submission – they sent me a rejection letter dated March 21st (!) although my application was sent on May 14th. And I wasn’t even asking for a handout – I would have paid my own way.

If I had a shed, I’d head off there and cry very bitter tears.