Category Archives: Writing

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.

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!

 

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…

 

 

 

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!