Category Archives: Writing

Always Take The Weather With You

The late Elmore Leonard, American novelist and screenwriter, famously advised would-be writers they should never start a book with descriptions of the weather.

It is one of the good ol’ writing tips that gets churned out at workshops and writing classes.  But what if your book is about meteorologists? Or a life-changing hurricane? Or Storm Louise (I kid you not)? Or perhaps you are writing about happy bunnies enjoying a picnic in the sun? Yes, well….

The weather is something we have plenty of here in Ireland. It is unlikely you’ll ever pass a day without talking about it. In the queue in the bank, garage, supermarket, chipper*, someone will strike up a conversation about rain/sunshine/rain/wind/rain/floods/rain/hurricanes/rain (well, I am in the Emerald Isle, and we don’t have our green status through being dry, dusty and drought-stricken).

Often, I think the weather is an easy small-talk opener: mention the unseasonal goings-on outside, and you might strike up a deeper conversation with a stranger, which could lead to, well, who knows where?

And of course, extreme weather is always newsworthy and a topic for us mere mortals to ponder. Of all the wonderful achievements of mankind, successful control of the weather isn’t one of them. Not even close.

I think there may even be a poem in there – along with something about Louise, the storm that never was.

When last year, Met Éireann and the UK Met Office revealed their storm names (for severe weather systems this side of the Atlantic), I was thrilled to discover there was a potential Storm Louise nestled between Kamil and Malcolm. The names are chosen annually, A-Z by popular choice, but missing some of the trickier letters. In 2017, we got as far as Storm Ewan in February, which followed Storm Doris when winds of 94mph were recorded. It is unlikely we’ll get as far as the ‘Ls’ before a new list of names takes effect. But I still feel some sort of attachment to the idea –  my grandmother’s name was Doris. And next year’s list includes Larry, which is what some people call my son Laurence.

If you’re still reading and you’d like a cheery three-minute interlude, click here for the song my title alludes to: Crowded House first released ‘Weather With You’ in 1992. And no brollies in sight!

*Chipper? I’m told this is Irish for fish and chip shop. Of course, I’m using poetic licence with reference to same – do I look like someone who’d know what went on inside such a place? No, please don’t answer!

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Snap, Crackle and Pop

Shhh…I think I can hear someone coming

You’ve heard of brothel creepers? Silent shoes, so no-one can hear you coming (or going)? Great idea, but why has no-one invented silent waterproof jackets? Perhaps if there was a catchier name…

Walking the dog requires me to wear a waterproof jacket (come on, it is August and I am in Ireland), but the amount of noise it makes is doing my head in. Rustle, crinkle, snap. Like popped rice cereal, but without the milk or flavour.

I walk along trying to keep up with my girl Tully, making sure to swing my arms (so my wristband records maximum steps – don’t ask), but the noise is deafening. No doubt the wildlife hears me from 500 metres away and hides. No wonder I rarely see any of the hares, badgers and foxes that live close to the lane where we walk.

And it isn’t just one coat or jacket that is noisy – I’ve a whole wardrobe of them.

It puts me in mind of an evening I spent last year at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, County Mayo. I was there to hear what turned out to be a very entertaining double act of novelist and short story writer Donal Ryan, and poet Martin Dyar, reading their own and each other’s work.

I’m normally a bit of a fidget and have trouble sitting still. But on this occasion, I was forced into stillness and wrote the following little ditty after:

At the Reading
My new green coat rustles, look-at-me loud
inappropriately waterproof and warming
in the pin-drop quiet of an auditorium
draped in many yards of funereal black.
Microphone snaking ear to cheek, eyes
raised in solemn deference to the gods,
shirt sleeves rolled neatly to the elbow,
the prize-winning poet means business.
In staccato Mayo he enunciates carefully
his lauded verse, pleased at its new status
on the national English curriculum.
I manage not to crinkle, marvelling instead
that from now on, thousands of Leaving Cert
teenagers will wring unexpected meaning
from ‘Death and the Post Office’.

So, silent waterproofs, where are you? I want to listen to poems and watch wildlife, unheard.

Although the reason the animals aren’t around when I’m out walking could be just because they are crepuscular and I’m not. Honest. (Three cheers for punctuation!)

PS I love Martin Dyar’s book of poetry, ‘Maiden Names’, and Donal Ryan is one of my favourites, too, even though I blush at all the sweary words he uses.

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?

Read All About It

Way too tidy  (and small) to be my book collection…

My kitchen floor’s a mess again.

What with books to read, poems to write, creative writing groups to facilitate and sick cats to pet, I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no time to mop the floor. Or clean the windows (you have to do that more than once a year? Really?).

That’s the trouble with household chores like cleaning. You get it  all done, and then in an instant,  it needs doing again. And time can be so much better spent reading.

I mean, good books don’t read themselves, do they?

It was probably a bit of a coincidence, but the day I heard that Helen Dunmore had died, her novel ‘Burning Bright’ fell of the shelf in front of me. I took it as a sign to re-read it, which I did (lovely lyrical writing). It happened to be among a pile of books that all needed revisiting. I had a go at Leon Garfield’s children’s novel ’Smith’ about a Victorian street urchin with a conscience (my copy bears a bookplate showing that I gave it originally to my sister for Christmas in 1973). Then I read PG Wodehouse’s ‘Heavy Weather’, which was everything a ridiculous farce about uppercrust Brits in yesteryear should be.

After that, Emma Donoghue’s short stories ‘Touchy Subjects’ kept me quiet for a while, then I read ‘The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine’, an enjoyable No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency story from Alexander McCall Smith, followed by a re-read of Anne Enright’s dark look at Irish family life, ‘The Gathering’ (which won the Man Booker in 2007).

I’ve managed to fit in a few more-recently published books, ‘One Bad Turn’, a well-written, fast-paced thriller by Sinead Crawley; ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant, a page turner with an unexpected twist at the end; and Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Magpie Murders’. This last one was a Book Club choice and I’ll hear how other members found it later this week.

For me, it felt like I was in the middle of a Cluedo game, with a whodunit within a whodunit which was surprisingly compulsive.  Even after I cheated and read the ending when I was only about a quarter way through (I’m often guilty of this), I had to go back and read the whole thing properly so as not to miss any of the clever twists and turns. It was all rather Midsomer Murders, but then, why wouldn’t it be? – the same prolific author created both. And the book is full of unashamed name-dropping and amusing digs at the publishing industry.

I’ve missed a few Book Club meetings recently, but I try to keep up with the titles under scrutiny, which is how I came to read the beautifully written but incredibly sad semi-auto biographical story about life with a profoundly disabled child, ‘The Mouse-proof Kitchen’ by Saira Shah. One of the things I like about being in a Book Club is reading and discussing titles I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to read.

You’d wonder with all this reading how I ever manage to have any kind of a life?

Well, I don’t.

Leastways, not one that includes mopping kitchen floors.

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!