Category Archives: Writing Competitions

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May Day, May Day? Can’t Remember…

I nearly forgot to boast about my recent win at Strokestown Poetry Festival – I took first prize in the Roscommon Poets’ Prize, a competition in which I came third the previous two years. That was certainly a good start to May!

Of course I’m delighted. The poem is about memory, a theme that keeps coming up to bite me on the bum, to remind me what to write about when I’m stuck for ideas. You can read it here.

The competition was judged by a friend of mine, Sligo poet Jessamine O’Connor, who would know my style and usual themes (my elderly mother crops up a good deal, and fanciful broken love affairs). So after almost not entering at all because it felt kind of awkward, I went ahead anyway and wrote something new and different. It was one of those poems that arrived on the paper pretty well fully formed. No idea how that works, I’m just happy to go along with it.

And of course, I had no hint that I was even in the running (although I knew I’d been shortlisted, along with six others). Jessamine, of course, was very professional about it all and although she’d judged the competition blind, didn’t know mine was her favourite until a number matched my name. She sounded just as shocked as me in the end. And I discovered the reason she’d been avoiding me since Christmas was so she didn’t give the game away. Ha!

This year my friend Catherine Ryan from Castlerea came second (she won the first year) and Laurence Henson from Strokestown came third (he won last year). Turn and turn about! All three of us are Hermit Collective poets.

Strokestown Poetry Festival is Ireland’s longest running poetry festival and last year they had their Arts Council funding withdrawn. This time around the funding was back in place, and the festival seemed to be flourishing. It is all about competitions, and I attended the prizegivings for the Percy French comic verse, and the main international poetry competitions.  Paddy Bushe and Maura Dooley adjudicated the latter, and it was fascinating to hear their comments on the ten shortlisted poems.

There was an anthology published this year. I’d recommend it – it has work from all the poets associated with the weekend, plus the shortlisted international competition entries (but  sadly, not any from the Roscommon shortlist). But worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy.

You could have picked one up from me as I manned the bookstall for an exhausting hour on the Saturday afternoon. Such a chore having to sit in the distinguished old dining room in Strokestown Park House, log fire blazing, dozens of poetry books scattered across the table, but I like to do my bit.

Of course, I’m just getting into character for some time in the future when my own collection of poetry gets put on sale there…

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?

Spitting Nails and other Pointless Activities

copy-of-scary-betty
Scary Betty.

I’ve been helping to get a new Creative Writing Group up and running in Charlestown Arts Centre, here in County Mayo. It is proving to be an interesting exercise in perseverance and determination – and of course, creativity.

We’ve a core group of hardened scribes with significant publication credits to their names, alongside biro-wielding retired ladies looking for something interesting to pass the time on a Monday morning. Plus a few others who drop in and out, who aren’t quite sure if creative writing is their thing.

Over the years, I’ve belonged to a number of different writing groups, some more enjoyable than others, but all ultimately helping to invoke the creative muse.

My favourite kind of group meeting involves some writing time with inspirational prompts, as well as chit chat and the exchange of writing news and information. An opportunity for constructive criticism  can be included, too. And to be absolutely top dollar, there has to be a cup of Earl Grey and a ginger biscuit or two to hand. Which is where we are with the Charlestown Creative Writing Group, every other Monday from 10.30 am until 12.30 pm (next meeting October 24th 2016, new members welcome!).

But it is proving to be an opportunity for me to shoot myself in the foot as I share information about competitions and submission deadlines with my fellow writers. I’ll be entering too, which means we will be competing against each other.

By now, I’ve had enough successes (and failures) to know that the whole process is so subjective that it often isn’t just about writing skill. Which means anything can happen, and often does.  Like when I’ve encouraged fellow group members to enter a competition and they’ve ended up being shortlisted and I’ve not. Which is where the nail-spitting comes in – although like most negative emotions, anger is usually a waste of energy.  And I speak as a hot-headed ginger child who grew into a (mostly) placid, (mostly) blonde adult…

One of the fun warm-up exercises we did recently was to write a verse for one of the following greetings cards:

  1. a) Sorry You’re Leaving;  b) On Your Retirement;  c) It’s A Boy!  d) Bon Voyage;  e) Congratulations!

Sounds easy, right?

Wrong!

I found it really tricky, even using a rhyming dictionary (no, it’s not cheating!). And the point of this story is that I had to take my hat off to some of the writers around the table who created tiny masterpieces in just 10 minutes. I shouldn’t be surprised (or upset) if any one of them beat me to a writing prize (or a job with Hallmark).

And now I’m thinking I should have a go at throwing my hat into the ring and write about clichés.

Or cats with big teeth.

Howya and other Gems

lgc with Dermot BolgerListening to author Dermot Bolger talking-the-talk at a hundred miles an hour and in Dublin-speak – what’s there not to like about that for an otherwise dull and rainy Saturday?

I attended Dermot Bolger’s ‘Finding a Voice’ writing workshop at the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar yesterday (July 23rd 2016).  Eleven of us (all female) spent the morning listening to tips and anecdotes from an entertaining man who certainly knows his stuff.

He started with stories of his first mentor Sheila Fitzgerald from back in the 1970s,  and continued with plenty of snippets about stars of the current Irish literary world. Dermot Bolger rubs shoulders with the literati (heck, he IS the literati!) and he has tales to tell about them all.

He revealed his own preference for writing that has texture and quality, and he highlighted the necessity for dramatic opening paragraphs that make you want to read on.  He also reminded us that you need to make time to write – and be as adamant about keeping to that special time as his late wife was about keeping silence in the house while she watched Coronation Street!

His general advice to would-be novelists was to get the first draft down with ‘passion in your heart’ and then start editing the second draft with ‘ice in your veins’. He also insisted that while it’s great to be able to disappear (as he has done) to a lighthouse to do your writing, it’s not absolutely necessary. Wherever and whenever seems to be the key – in other words: just get on with it!

We did some writing prompted by photographs he brought along – and then he went around the table critiquing us, along with the original piece of writing we’d submitted in order to get a place on the workshop.

He gave everyone positive and encouraging feedback, which was nice.  Interestingly, he thought my story could have been  more specific location-wise (I’d been deliberately vague about naming a battlefield site) but I didn’t own up that (thankfully) a few other editors haven’t taken the same view. That particular 600-word story has so far won me the Hanna Greally Award and €200, it’s been published in two anthologies, and it is about to go into a third. Which just goes to show how subjective views on writing can be.

The afternoon session was to a bigger audience when Dermot talked and answered questions about his long and successful career writing poems, plays, novels, short stories and journalism. His inspiration takes different forms – he can knockout a story whenever he gets a call say, from the BBC!

I took away a few gems from both the morning and afternoon sessions – it is lovely that a writer of Dermot Bolger’s calibre can be so enthusiastic and encouraging towards new writers and that he is so willing to give advice and insider tips and information.

And his rapid-fire, heavily accented delivery made for a hugely entertaining day.

But in all the excitement I forgot to thank him for choosing my piece as one of the winners in the I am Dublin Competition earlier this year. Mind you, he might have been peeved to hear that he awarded a blow-in the prize, and one who can’t do the Dub accent unless she’s a (Christmas) drink taken. Which may be a story for another day.

Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?

squirrelI have been spending a lot of time recently wondering why on earth I write. Of course, it’s rejections that bring on that ‘what’s it all for?’ mood.

I seem to have had a good few negatives explode in my in-box recently, like badly placed mines ready to tear off my writing limbs. They are somehow counterbalanced by an unequal number of positives of course, which is what keeps me going.

I carry on because, as I’ve said before, ‘Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?’ (I need to get a fridge magnet made). That thrill of knowing my story or poem stood out as proficient and entertaining, that someone besides family and friends thought my work was good – well that’s what it’s all about.

Ultimately of course I write for myself, for my own amusement and to escape into a world where I have total control, where I can be anyone, anything I want to be. It’s almost a compulsion, my need to write (I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to hold a pen). But it still matters to me that other people enjoy my writing too.

Yet writing is like many aspects of the human experience – one size does NOT fit all. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, garden design, fashion, politics, food, drink – life would be very dull if we all liked the same things.

True, some things are generally well liked and popular – think Elvis and the Beatles, think JK Rowling and Stephen King, think Monet and Picasso, think Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith, think Coco Chanel and Stella McCartney, think chocolate and colcanon.

OK, such a list could go on for ever, but you get the idea? And culture in all its guises is subjective, so I shouldn’t get hung up about someone not liking my writing. My work should appeal to someone, but not necessarily everyone. Should I mind? Probably not, but I do…

So in order to prove to myself and other people that I CAN write, I put myself through the competition mangle time and time again. Last year I’d planned to get to one hundred submissions (which included competition entries, bursary applications, magazine contributions et al). I ran out of steam after no 74, although by then I’d garnered a few wins, with some published stories to add to my portfolio. Plus, the coffers were not unduly strained (I more than broke even, although I’m not booking the round-the-world cruise just yet).

I hit the ground running in January 2016 and promised myself again to try for a century. We’re not quite half way through the year and I’ve just fired my 51st submission off, ever hopeful of a ‘congratulations’ reply.

Meanwhile, one thing that has perked me up no end was looking through my records and discovering that some of my successes had been failures in a previous incarnation. Each one got dusted off and rewritten, then sent out again, including one story that was rejected by a very good writer (the lovely one I met in a bookshop in Cork last week!), which went on to get published in an anthology with a highly commended tag.  Which just goes to show…

And the picture? Er, squirrels?  Yes, well first off, I really miss them here in Ireland. They don’t live anywhere near me (nor do hedgehogs or rabbits, although we do have foxes, hares, badgers and polecats). This one lives in Swansea (Dylan Thomas country – see, there is a writing connection here). And this fella likes stale Cheerios, although some of his fellow tree rats don’t…

QED, eh?

 

Writers on Other Planets

book haulHere’s a nice story: Once upon a time there was this wannabe short story writer who was wandering around Waterstones in Cork when she found herself introduced to the lovely author of the book of short stories she was about to buy…

Yes, that was me in Cork.

I know, it’s a long (very long) way from County Roscommon, but I have to say, I LOVE Cork and wasn’t going to miss the chance of a visit when I was invited to the launch of the anthology of stories from the From the Well Short Story Competition.

So, up with the lark and many miles later I got to meet the writer who judged the competition, Billy O’Callaghan, whose stories I have much admired from afar. He did not disappoint and was kind enough to chat to me for a few minutes with some helpful tips on entering writing competitions. He is very encouraging to new writers and is now in place as Cork’s Writer in Residence.

I was thrilled to have my story in the anthology ‘Bunker and Other Short Stories’,  published by Cork County Library and Arts Service, particularly since it got a special mention in Billy’s introduction to the book.

Fast forward 24 hours and I’m still in Cork, soaking up the buzz of the city.

I mean, tuneful buskers, street artists, vegetarian cafes, bookshops, sunshine, friendly people with that fabulous (almost Welsh) accent, what is there not to like?

I still had some of my book token winnings to spend from the Irish Writers Centre Competition I won a few months ago, so I wandered into Waterstones. I intended buying Billy O’Callaghan’s book of stories ‘The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind’ which I’ve already read from the library, but I wanted my own copy. Same with Sara Baume’s stunning novel ‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’.

Then I spotted Danielle McGlaughlin’s ‘Dinosaurs On Other Planets’ which I snatched up too. I have enjoyed many of Danielle’s short stories and have been looking forward to getting my hands on her new collection. All three authors are local to Cork.

So imagine my delight when the Waterstones man pointed out a blonde customer quietly browsing the books a few feet away and called her over to meet me.

Danielle McGlaughlin kindly signed my copy of her book and stayed to chat about writing groups and competitions and such, telling me what a vibrant literary scene there is in the city.  Well, I think that’s what we talked about. I was totally star struck – she probably wondered how such a jibbering eejit could put any words together to make sense, but she was very kind and went away promising to look out for my story in the From The Well anthology. And it turns out she’s had past success in that competition, too.

This week, I was still high on the news that I was one of the final ten in the Exeter Short Story Competition, but I crashed back down to earth with three separate rejections on the same day just before I headed for Cork.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this competitive creative writing, but I understand that being shortlisted and winning competitions offers some sort of third party validation as to my writing ability…

But what a pity I live such a long way from Cork!