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The Plot Thickens

Luri Cole
One of us might need a haircut before we get too deep into this writing lark

Did I mention I’m writing a novel – a joint effort with my criminologist daughter? It’s a kind of grip-lit character-led thriller.

Standing in the supermarket queue, that’s the sort of thing to drop into a conversation beginning with Irish weather/Brexit/refugees/the price of petrol/Leo-at-the-helm (delete as appropriate). Or is it?

Since we went public with our plans to write a novel together – we’re ‘Luri Cole’ (a mix of Louise and Rhiannon), we seem to have ground to a halt. The more people we tell, the slower moving the project, or so it seems. Not sure why.

Originally, we thought we might write the book in chapters, each one finishing on a cliff hanger. I’d write the story into a corner and Rhiannon would write it out again, and then into another problem for me to solve. Like a game of consequences. Simples. Ha!

Instead, we plotted it quite carefully and drew up a set of characters we believe in. Now we’ve the story and the first 50,000 words. But.

And then today, while Rhiannon was slaving over a hot stove (which is another story which might turn into a rant about decent job opportunities for criminologists in mid-west Ireland, so I’ll keep it to myself), I took myself off to an editing workshop for writers.

Another workshop? Well, yes.

Trust me, there’s no end to the number of tips and insights you can get from meeting working authors. And I really enjoyed this one.

Elizabeth Reapy’s workshop was in the Linenhall, Castlebar, County Mayo. I recommend her novel ‘Red Dirt’, which some might find surprising given my stance on cursing and swearing. red dirt ‘Red Dirt’ is a cracking (very sweary!) story of young Irish ones in Australia. But in the same way that Donal Ryan and Kevin Barry churn out the hair-curling vernacular, the language is pivotal to the characters’ story and it races along in a way that made me want to keep turning the pages (or swiping, I read it as an e-book).

At the workshop, Elizabeth recommended we write down what we find difficult in our writing, and later suggested we might ask one of our characters to tackle a part of the story that isn’t working.

Ah, ha! There followed a light bulb moment, and I rushed home to pick up Luri Cole’s story where we’d last left off. We’ve already changed tense, points of view, and ditched a main character, but there was something else wrong, and it has only now occurred to me what that is and how we can fix it.

Recently, I was at Listowel Writers’ Week, at another excellent workshop, this time with short story writer Danielle McLaughlin. And over several days, I got to listen to some successful new(ish) authors talking about their novels – and I found the whole thing very inspirational.

lying in wait   my nameis leon  himselfMy favourites were Liz Nugent (‘Lying in Wait’), Kit de Waal (‘My Name is Leon’) and Jess Kidd (‘Himself’). All come highly recommended by me (as well as by just about everyone else).

 

If Luri Cole’s forthcoming novel can be anywhere near as entertaining as these, I think we might be onto a winner.

Time to superglue bums to seats in front of the laptop and finish the damn thing!

 

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

I Started Early – Didn’t Take My Dog (or Visit the Sea)

If you happened to be listening to yesterday afternoon’s  Drive Time programme on RTE Radio One, you  might have heard a segment about Poetry Day Ireland (April 27th 2017), about a whole day of poetry, in all sorts of places throughout Ireland. (Listen here, starting about 1:58 in).

The over-excited voice commenting about getting up at 5.30am in County Roscommon in order to get to Dublin in/on time – well, that was ME! I was interviewed about my favourite poet/poems, and of course I had to mention my devotion to Seamus Heaney (forgot to mention Emily!).  I also gave a shout out to Jane Clarke, who was the reason I was there at Poetry Ireland in Parnell Square East.

I’d heard that Jane would be giving a talk at a seminar, and I was curious to hear if she’d reveal her modus operandi  – I wasn’t disappointed. All the ‘Mind Your Own Business!’ speakers had fascinating insider information to share, and I learnt a lot. I now have a better idea from Paul Perry as to why my grant applications are never successful; Jane Clarke gave some clues as to the publicity lead time for a poetry collection (absolutely ages); Don Paterson, Poetry Editor at Picador, was refreshing in his views about tightly themed first collections (avoid, they’re usually contrived and boring. Phew!); Alexander Technique practitioner Tomás Hardiman made me aware of how heavy my head is; and Poetry Ireland’s Communications Manager Muireann Sheahan made me realise how I should be more into Social Media (oh dear).  All information that was well worth getting up early for. And I even missed an opportunity to read with the Hermits in Strokestown so I could be there…

Before I got to Poetry Ireland, I’d spent a restful hour in the sanctuary that is the Irish Writers’ Centre, just around the corner.  I’m a member there, so I thought, why not?

Before that, I’d been shopping. For books, of course. Poetry books.

I’d entered the Books Upstairs Poetry Competition and was curious to see who’d won. Not me, sadly, but what a lovely shop:  loadsa books, literary magazines and a coffee shop with window seats – oh joy!

And I’d got my Confirmation money to spend. No, no I mean my Christmas money. Or was it my Birthday dosh?  Ah, sod it, I might as well come clean (the chancellor of the family exchequer doesn’t read this blog anyway):  I spent a whole week’s grocery money on books, OK?

What a thrill! I bought Emily Dickinson’s complete works in one volume (and it later opened straight to ‘Hope is the feathered thing…’).  I also bought Africk McGlinchey’s ‘Ghost of the Fisher Cat’,  Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ (which is said to be something of a poetic novel),  ‘Ballistics’ by Billy Collins, ‘The Travels of Sorrow’ by Dermot Healy, and ‘Mountains for Breakfast’ by Geraldine Mitchell (which I hope to hear more of at Stroketown  Poetry Festival this coming weekend). I also bought a copy of The Moth magazine, wondering if it has changed much since I gave up being a subscriber a while ago (the jury’s out on that one).

I had to lug my cache everywhere for the rest of the day, but hefting great weights is supposed to be a boost for fitness.  I now have one arm longer than the other, but hey!

And now I’m hoping I haven’t missed the opportunity to see the recent film about Emily Dickinson, ‘A Quiet Passion’, with ‘Sex and the City’ star Cynthia Nixon in the title role. Read the review  that made me want to see it here.

Losing The Windmills Of My Mind

Views over the garden to the sea

I’ve waited for the dust to settle before writing the final instalment of my what-I-did-on-my-writing-course essay. I figured the gushing was a bit OTT and I needed to come back down to earth a bit.

Or not.

So. Tŷ Newydd (no, I still can’t pronounce it properly, despite being married to a Welshman and having lived in the country for a brief time during my formative years).

Well, what else is left to say? I had a BRILLIANT time. The place is lovely, the actual building as well as the surroundings. The accommodation was exactly fit for purpose. The tutors were generous and skilled in sharing their love of the form.

Collating the anthology,  L-R Alice, Sally, Louise and Oenone
Chef Tony with Maggie, the Tŷ Newydd cat

I learned a lot about poetry and enjoyed the workshops and the banter. I still haven’t got over the thrill of having my poems critiqued by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke (did I mention they are the UK’s Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales respectively?). I met some very interesting fellow poetry writers, and ate some seriously delicious, home-cooked vegan food.

Even the sun shone on the final day as we raced around the gardens on an Easter Egg Hunt set by Carol Ann. There was an egg and spoon race, then a hopping game, but I settled on being a spectator at that point.

Gillian Clarke

We all had poems published in ‘Song House’ an anthology I will treasure – not least because my words are now in the same publication as those of our highly respected tutors.

I learned to look out for abstract nouns and unnecessary adverbs, to look at the form of a poem on the page, and to weave texture with language to produce mystery rather than obscurity. I also learned to work with rhythm and metre, to kill my precious darlings (no matter how loved they are, if they don’t fit, they have to go) – and to avoid daft nonsense in the style of ‘The Windmills of My Mind’.

 

In the Library

The final evening was spent in the Library reading our work to each other (and to David, Gillian’s husband who also shared a poem with us).

Since then, I’ve re-visited most of my poems and realised how they can be improved; that should keep me quiet for a while.

I am trying to think of what were the week’s negatives, because things that sound too good to be true often are. Except in this case.

True, I found the narrow bed a bit tricky (spoiled brat that I am), and the Welsh water had a nasty taste if it wasn’t flavoured with Earl Grey or coffee. How awful, eh? It’s a wonder I coped.

Oh, and I left my phone there. On charge, blissfully forgotten until I was well on the way home.

What? A whole week without a phone? Yep, but that’s another story.

Dammit, I Couldn’t Marry a Tree

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem for Tracey Emin ‘Stone Love’

The time of my life is now drawing to a close. Well, not literally, I hope, just poetically speaking.

I’m on the last day of a Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy (the UK Poet Laureate) and Gillian Clarke (Welsh National Poet) at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre of Wales.

I’ve never before been on a residential writing course, though I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly in workshops, seminars and classes, the you-too-can-spend-a-fortune-and-become-in-a-day-a-best-selling-author/poet/playwright/wordsmith (delete as appropriate).

This experience has been in a different league to anything I’ve ever done before. This has been intellectually challenging and stimulating, in the company of a lovely group of capable women poets ranging in age from 21 to someway past retirement. One of my initial fears was that I’d be the oldest here, surrounded by bright young things, and I’d be left wondering how I’d managed to let the poetry ship sail by without me. I’m still thinking that, but it seems I’m not the only one, and there’s hope for me yet, no matter how long of tooth I am.

The poetry writing exercises have been eye-wateringly challenging.  Group DiscussionsThis morning’s session began with Carol Ann reading a poem on, and then leading a discussion about, Tracey Emin’s marriage to a stone (Google it – fascinating!). It ended with us writing a poem ‘I married a….’ with each of us offered a random object to tie the knot with. I got a tree, but I couldn’t get past all the puns involved in branching out and leaving, so I failed miserably (although I may revisit that idea some time in the future).

Last night, after another delicious dinner (did I mention how GORGEOUS the food is here?) we took turns to read out anonymous poems, and tried to guess which one of us had done the writing. I got three guesses right – I even recognised my own contribution. There were some jaw-droppingly brilliant poems read out – one of them (not mine, sadly) was immediately identified by Gillian and Carol Ann as a ‘competition poem’, the sort that goes straight to the top of the judge’s pile.

I am humbled to be in such talented company; I’ve had a ball, but my brain is scrambled now, and I need to find a quiet corner to mull over what I’ve learned, find the time to put all that good advice into practice.

Maggie, the chef's cat
Maggie, the Ty Newydd cat

It’s not quite finished yet – there’s a little anthology getting printed this afternoon, with contributions from all participants, plus Carol Ann and Gillian.

And tonight, we get to read our favourite, self-penned poems in front of the Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales in the Tŷ Newydd Library. We get five minutes each to make our mark.

No pressure then…

 

 

 

Welsh Rare Bits

Ty Newydd

Spoiler alert – I’m inclined to gush when I like something, so be prepared…

I was going to love it or hate it, wasn’t I? No half measures – a week-long Masterclass with two poetry icons, Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy, in the beautiful Welsh countryside (and it hasn’t even rained properly yet).

Ty Newydd, the former home of the late British PM David Lloyd George, is now the National Writing Centre of Wales. When I applied for a place on a residential course with the UK’s Poet Laureate (Carol Ann) and the Welsh National Poet (Gillian) back in December, I was hopeful, but not convinced I’d be worthy.

Fast forward to March when I discovered I’d been selected to take part (gasp!).  Sleepless nights worrying if I have what it takes to step up to the mark manifested an annoying cough.

I needn’t have been quite so worried. Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke are an entertaining double act who know their stuff.  They are wonderfully approachable and supportive – and it is lovely to witness their great friendship. And of course, the words of wisdom are plentiful and helpful.

There are 15 of us here – all wimin (because none of the men who applied were up to scratch – ha!) and I know I’m not alone in finding the pace frenetic, and the intensity and enthusiasm of some of the other participants, mind bending.

There’s something in me that knows talent can’t be taught, but I also know that insider tips, advice and a professional eye can go a long way to nurturing a germ of creativity.  While I’m surrounded by stunning wordsmiths, I’m smart enough to recognise that I’m not the most (or the least) talented here.  But my work is already greatly improved from my participation.

L-R: Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker and Carol Ann Duffy

On Tuesday night, Carol Ann and Gillian gave us a poetry reading in the library – all new, unpublished material, much of it getting its first public airing, which was thrilling.  On Wednesday evening, they’d invited Imtiaz Dharker who had us enthralled with a selection of new and old poems, beautifully crafted and delivered.

We’re over half way through the course already – and I haven’t even mentioned the delicious food (a vegan chef in charge of the kitchen – heaven or what? And he has a cat, I mean, well…).

Clearly, there’s more to follow.