Getting to Grips with Scrivener

My Christmas Cactus didn’t get the memo, either. It’s flowering in February…

I’m not that keen on New Year’s Resolutions – I know it’s nearly the end of February, but please don’t judge me  – they are usually a good idea, but untenable. So, I rarely put much effort into making them – or keeping them.

But when 2018 arrived, I had the nagging feeling that I should be getting to grips with certain aspects of my writing career, so I resolved to fix a few things. I tried not to call them resolutions…

Top of the list was my need to master Scrivener. But it is SO difficult! I’ve talked to people who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (or whatever the writing equivalent of that is), and I’ve talked to people who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole (whatever one of those is). And there are even more people who have probably never even heard of it. Scrivener? What?

It’s one of those all singing, all dancing word processing software thingies that will (almost) write your novel for you. Or not.

One of the reasons I gave Scrivener a try a couple of years back is because an author I respect raved about it – and it came with a free trial. And canny are the Scrivener software people because they give you a 30-day free trial – not consecutive days, but cumulative ones. In my case, it took me almost a year to get through half of my free days, then I went mad and actually paid for it (thankfully, it’s not expensive).

The software then sat on my computer for several months before I thought about using it again. I’m tuned into Microsoft Word, which is usually sufficient for most of my writerly needs.

But it’s been niggling me that I haven’t got to grips with Scrivener. Spoiler alert – I still haven’t, but I’m working on it.

There are plenty of on-line tutorials, of course. (Need to know how to boil an egg/do open heart surgery/make playdough/unblock a sink/write a best-seller? Try YouTube.)

But nothing beats getting stuck in and trying to use the software yourself. It has great templates to help you set out a novel, or a script, or short stories. And there are corkboards for notes and research where you can pin videos, pictures or other virtual bits and pieces. You can keep all your research, timelines and character sketches together, and switch effortlessly between scenes and chapters, so what is there not to like about that? You can even get it to monitor your daily output and set word-count goals.

I just can’t quite get it to write the damn book for me. Where am I going wrong?

Just kidding – I’m at about 40,000 words of a new novel (written entirely on Scrivener),  which I have high hopes of a) completing and b) getting published. Oh, and it’s going to win me at least a Booker nomination. And a Costa one. Richard and Judy will love it, so will Oprah, I’ll even get on the Late, Late with it.

Ha, ha! Ever heard of ‘famous last words’?

And you can check out Scrivener for yourself here.

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My Week as a Real Writer

I am coming to the end of my writer’s retreat at Annaghmakerrig – just one more day to soak up the creative atmosphere before I have to return to the real world.

When people told me what a fantastic place this was, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Monaghan, I imagined most of what they said was hyperbole. Nowhere could be that wonderful, surely? Well, yes it can, with knobs on!

I am staying in one of the self-catering cottages, which is stylish, warm and comfortable, with every creature comfort taken care of. And I have taken at least one walk a day around the fabulous grounds, trying hard not to be distracted from the purpose of my being here – that is, to write. And I have written, boy, have I written – 26,545 words at the last count.

Having the opportunity to do nothing more than be a writer has been a wonderful experience for me, although I probably couldn’t keep up this pace for much longer. Writing about 7,000 words a day is frying my brains.

But at the moment, I’m thinking I’m writing something that’s going to get at least a Costa nomination. Of course, next week, I’ll look back through it all and cringe, thinking it’s rubbish. But at the moment, I’m flying!

Even the weather has been kind to me – sunshine and showers, snow and ice, but I’ve still managed to walk for miles hereabouts. And it is still winter, after all – I can only imagine what this place must be like in the spring with bluebells and rhododendrons.

I haven’t had the full Annaghmakerrig experience because the main house is still full of builders doing renovations. And I’ve barely seen another soul all week, so the networking opportunities I’d anticipated haven’t materialised.

But no matter. I arrived here as a writer – and I’m going to be leaving having written. What more could I ask?

Do not disturb!

Remember when you were small and you were lying awake waiting for Santa to deliver that bike, or the doll’s house, or the boxed set of Enid Blytons? You just knew the next day was going to be absolutely fabulous.

Well, that’s how I’m feeling right now ahead of my trip to (deep breath) Annaghmakerrig next week.

As someone who is always bemoaning the fact that I’ve no room of my own, no regular writing time, 101 (valid) excuses why I can’t finish my work, well I’ve been called out with the chance of a whole week’s writing retreat. Seven days and nights to do nothing but…write.

So many people have told me how wonderful the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Monaghan is, and how conducive to serious, head-down-and-get-on-with-it writing. My place was hard won, too – I had to jump through lots of hoops to get there, and I’m self-funded.

But long story short, my time is coming and I can’t wait. Will it be worth it? Who knows?

No interruptions. Check. Beautiful surroundings. Check. Exclusive writing time. Check.

No-one asking where are the car keys? Would I like a cup of tea? Come and see this funny You Tube video. What’s for dinner? Isn’t it your turn to clean up the cat sick?

A whole week of me minding myself (I’m self-catering) and no-one else.  I can please myself what I eat and when I eat it, when I go to bed and when I get up again, what music to listen to, how to fill my time. Bliss (although the prospect of such aloneness long term doesn’t appeal).

I’m allowing myself to take just three books – I’m supposed to be writing, not reading, after all. Tom Hanks’s book of short stories was a Christmas present that I still haven’t opened; Orwell’s 1984 is a Book Club choice which I’ve recently re-visited, and need to finish. And Mary Norton’s Borrowers books are my go-to if I need cheering up, or if I’m lonely – an escape back to childhood.

I’ve chosen two of my own projects to focus on, both long standing half-finished books that I hope are going to be worth me putting some effort into. One is a children’s story that I first started 20 years ago, which I keep picking up and putting down again.  I’ve decided to give it one last try because I really like the premise and think it will work, given a concentrated push.

Then there’s another novel that I really should get back into. I’m 67,000 words in, and I need to decide if it is worth finishing. And of course, I might even wax lyrical with a poem or two.  I might even get the hang of Scrivener while I’m at it.

The danger, of course, is having too many things on the go at once and becoming distracted. The gardens and countryside around Annaghmakerrig are gorgeous by all accounts, so I’m taking my camera. And my walking boots.

But I’m going to be sure to take my writing head. Wish me luck!

Hopelessly Devoted

Purrrfect writing companions, Daisy and Milo

Every writer should have a dog – and cats, lots of them. Although, as someone who used to be terrified of dogs (after being savaged by an Alsatian), that’s a pretty radical statement coming from me.

The benefit of having pets in your life is well documented, and a quick trawl of the internet will show you that cats and dogs seem to feature in the lives of many famous writers.

This story is mostly about my dog, Tully, although I’ve been the mad cat woman since I was three years old and was introduced to an energetic tabby kitten intent on running up the curtains at every opportunity. He grew into a soppy, easy-going family pet who was my confidante and playmate until the day I sat my second ‘A’ level English paper (sad story).

Selfies with this girl are almost impossible. She keeps moving!

A dog wasn’t ever going to feature in my life. Even after I grew out of being afraid, I was never keen to get to know one better. After all, cats are all you ever need, aren’t they? Wonderful writing (and life) companions, they’re drop dead gorgeous to look at, have an admirable attitude (‘worship me, be my slave, don’t expect much back in return’), and can lie around being companionable but silent for hours at a time.

Plus, cats are non-judgemental, never commenting about my grammar or punctuation, they don’t complain about what I’ve cooked for dinner, what I’m wearing, or my hair style, and they never make remarks about the size of my bum. They don’t shout when I’ve burnt the toast, and they don’t know any toe-curling swear words, nor do they notice if the kitchen floor needs mopping.

So, what’s there not to like about cats then?  Well, they can be distracting sometimes, but in a nice way. Check out Simon’s Cat for a humorous take on what it is like living with felines (you’ll need a few hours to waste, beware!).

I managed for years without knowing dogs. Then, in a moment of weakness nearly ten years ago, I caved in when my children whined in unison (a rare thing) about us giving a neglected puppy a good home. The dog needed rescuing from an unhappy, caged-in existence, and I’m a sucker for a hard-luck story.

My girl Tully

My girl Tully arrived in the Cole House, and now I can’t remember what life was like without her.

Sadly, she’s gone a bit lame recently, unable to keep up with me on our walks up the lane.

I like to walk. And walk. And walk some more. It frees my headspace, and I’ve created some of my best poetry covering the miles of countryside around our home. It also helps me to stay reasonably fit, a busy dog being the perfect walking companion so I never feel lonely.

But I started to realise that in dog years, Tully is now getting on and has overtaken me in age, so no wonder she’s slowing down a bit.  I’ve threatened to trade her in for a newer model (as if!), although I know there are a good few years left in her yet.

It’s just that lately, I’m seeing less of her in the great outdoors racing up the lane, and more of her in super-relaxed mode, draped across the armchair as I sit at the laptop pounding away at what may become a best seller (another, as if!).

I need some new poems, so I’m hoping the imminent arrival of Spring will encourage us both outside a bit more and Tully will regain her long-distance walking capabilities.

Either that, or I try training one of the cats to go walkies with me (yes, I know: as if!).

Imagine that!

No, I can’t imagine, either

One of the best things about being a writer is having free reign with imagination. Writers can create whole worlds – plus all the creatures that live in them.  And they can make up characters and force them do whatever they like. What power!

There’s that fridge magnet/bumper sticker that says something like: ‘I’m a writer. Yes, of course you’re going to be in my book. You come to a grizzly end on page 27’.

I feel a bit that way at the moment as I’m writing a longer-than-usual short story based on something that’s been going on in my life lately. But the clue is in the word ‘story’. What I’m writing may be inspired by reality, by living people and actual events, but I’m putting such a twist on it, the characters will be unrecognisable to themselves (otherwise I get sued, of course). It’s called fiction and I love it! I’m having a great time changing the reality to suit myself. It might even have a happier ending than the real thing, I haven’t decided.

And sod all those writing gurus who say, ‘write  about what you know’. I’m all for writing what I’d like to know.

Chess (the feline one) imagining he has a chance here

Of course, it is unlikely I’ll ever *murder my husband, take a toy boy lover, eat raw steak, drive the wrong way down the motorway doing 100 mph, use cocaine, climb Mount Etna, learn to fly a helicopter, join an on-line dating agency, or learn to play the piano, but any of my characters can. I can make them do whatever I want (so there), and I hope that by now, after all these years of practice, I can make their lives convincing to the reader.

And aren’t we lucky to have the research tool that is the Internet at our fingertips? If we don’t know how something works, someone will have put a You Tube video on line to explain. Research for writers is a doddle these days (so long as you trust your source).

My own life has been quite interesting so far, so I’ve a deep well of personal experience to dip into. I have insider information about all kinds of activities, including keeping alpacas and bees; polytunnel growing and selling organic veg in farmers’ markets; camping and outdoor survival; Austin Sevens and ships in bottles; treasure hunting and archaeology; hot air ballooning and light aircraft. And that was just last week (!).

I’m still trying to figure what names suit my fictional characters best and although I think I’ve decided, I’m going to have to proof-read very carefully when I’ve finished, after I discovered in an early first draft I’d used the name of the real person (oops!).

Killing off characters, making them scruffy, ugly or fat, giving them tattoos and bad breath, making them jump off a cliff. How cathartic is that for a writer with imagination and issues!

*In case you’re wondering, only one of these things is a vague possibility for me, but I’m not saying which.

And if you’re nice to me, I won’t let you get killed off until page 500.

Beyond the January Scales

Hide the peanuts, empty the biscuit tin, lock up the chocolates – I’m on a diet.  Well, at least I’m thinking about it.

Personally, I blame elasticated waistbands for most of my problems.  Plus a toaster parked invitingly beside the kettle, Marmite just within reach.  And chocolate-covered Brazils aren’t entirely without blame, either.

Sitting at a computer screen pretending to be a writer is terribly hard on the waistline, even though my writing desk is right next to a freely available (and in good working order) treadmill (oops!).

It helps that I have a dog to walk and beautiful Irish countryside nearby, otherwise I’d  be probably several  unflattering sizes bigger.

I’m the one in the white dress

When I got breathless taking down the Christmas tinsel from a wedding photograph, I decided action was called for. Was that really us beaming into the camera as we floated off in a hot air balloon at the start of our honeymoon?

Young, fresh-faced and well…slim.  We’d need a larger balloon basket now, joked the bride.  We’d need a bigger balloon to lift the extra weight, said the bridegroom.  We calculated that between us we’d gained the equivalent in excess poundage of another (small but significant) human being.

Three decades, two children and countless boxes of Heroes have taken their toll.  Baggy jumpers  and floaty tops can hide only so much.  But what to do?  Counting calories is a nightmare, especially when you’ve used up your daily allowance by 10am. Well, I guess I can dust off the treadmill and hide the Heroes for a start.

I need to stop baking, too…

Of course, deep down, I know it doesn’t matter if we have enough elastic in our waistbands; there’s more to life than cottage cheese and sticks of celery.

How do I know this?  Because I recall a day more than 20 years ago, when I was feeling particularly fat and frumpy.  I was wearing my most unflattering clothes, and my most expansive waistband was suffering from stretch fatigue, when my then four-year-old put his skinny arms around me (figuratively speaking) and declared: “I love you Mummy, because you’re beautiful.”

He was always a canny lad. “Really, Darling?” I gushed, putting aside my Weight Watchers cookery book. “Shall we have another chocolate biscuit?”

He grew up to become a bit of a foodie. You can connect with him here although I’m not sure any of his recipes are suitable for slimmers.

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!”

Reading, writing and other stuff from Louise G Cole, winner of Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry 2018