Tag Archives: Creative writing

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!”

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Age Restrictions Apply

Back in the days when I thought I was really grown up, aged five.

Although I am the mother of two children who are now in their twenties, I don’t feel very grown up myself. They might be adults, but I’m not there yet.

OK, so I have a share in a mortgage, a bulging credit card, and bank cashiers (when I can find them) call me ‘madam’ (grrr!). I’m legally old enough for most things (except a state pension), and I’m tall enough (just) for terrifying fairground rides (as if), but I really don’t feel grown up, even though I can drive and use WhatsApp.

I seem to have spent my entire life expecting adulthood to sneak up from behind and tap me on the shoulder, but I’m still waiting – and still trying to put the sentiment into words that make sense. I’ve tasked myself with writing a series of poems about refusing to age gracefully, but so far, I’m stuck on the first one.

I still like breaking the ice on winter puddles, and wading through fallen leaves in autumn.  There are soft toys on the shelf (but no elf), I throw a tantrum if I don’t win at Scrabble, and I get excited at the prospect of birthday cake, Christmas tinsel and chocolate Easter eggs. I don’t do bins, bills or change light bulbs, and I scream blue murder and demand to be rescued if one of the cats brings home something twitching and bloody.

True, I had to step up to the mark when my minder fell off a ladder and ended up helpless and wheelchair-bound for several months, but I didn’t enjoy the experience. Thankfully, neither did he, and eventually, his bones mended enough for him to take charge again. That was four years ago, and the details are now hazy as we’ve both blanked out such an awful experience.

I am fortunate in (mostly) not looking my age, still with my own hair colour, the right number of teeth and limbs, and a vague hope that Santa Claus will turn out to be real.

And I’m guessing I’m not alone here. The Famous Five re-writes have been created with people just like me in mind: Five On Brexit Island; Five Forget Mother’s Day; Five Go Gluten Free and the rest. Bruno Vincent has taken the Enid Blyton classics and given them a twist for ‘grown ups’ – hilarious.

If you’re looking for amusing stocking fillers, there are also the Ladybird ‘how it works’ books, using original artwork but with an up to date explanation of mothers, husbands,  grandparents, cats and a long list of others – great fun.

When I picked up The Ladybird Book of Dating in a bookshop in the summer, I laughed so much I had to be escorted from the premises.

No, not very grown up. But I’m working on it.

Snow Joke

Tonight, we’re waiting for snow to fall here in the west of Ireland. It’s still a bit early for a White Christmas, but you never know – once it gets here, it might decide to stay. Snow that is, not Christmas (although the shops have been flogging all things festive since the end of the summer holidays, or so it seems).

I thought I’d get ahead of the posse with my snowman picture taken several winters ago. I couldn’t remember if we gave him a name, then discovered the photograph was labelled ‘Baldy the Snowman’.  There’s no end to my family’s creativity. I mean, we called the seventh cat to join our household … Seven. Ingenious, eh?

Is is any wonder then, that I find titles for poems and stories difficult? REALLY difficult.  I have a poem about my late father that people who have heard it like – except for the title. So far, the poor little poem has had nine (yes, really) titles. And I’m still not sure I’ve arrived at the definitive one. The poem is awaiting some judge’s decision in a competition, so I won’t say any more about that one, but I’ve heard it said that titles can make or break a piece.

In an article about writing short stories published by the Bath Short Story Award organisers, writer Tessa Hadley said, back in 2013: ‘A title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Meanwhile, I am steeling myself (and sharpening the calculator) to do the end of year sums. For each of the past three years I have tried to send out 100 submissions – that’s competition entries, magazine and publishing submissions, grants and bursary applications. It’s a lot of words posted (ah sure, doesn’t An Post need the business?) or fired off into cyberspace. I didn’t get anywhere near the century in 2015 or 2016, but so far this year I’m at 96 and counting.

The acid test is to punch numbers into the calculator and work out how much this writing lark has cost me, and if I got enough back (my Arts Council award will help bump up the figures).  This year’s statistics might just be the tipping point to make me take up knitting again. Or bird watching. Or deep-sea diving. Or moon walking. Or kitchen floor cleaning.

Heck no, what a daft idea – I’m going to have to stick with the writing!

Reinventing the Wheel (or not)

Nope, doesn’t need work- the basic design is sound…

I have kept my head down lately, trying to complete some half-finished writing projects, not least because there seems to have been an unusually high number of competitions and submission opportunities this month.

I’m still out there, trying my luck with poetry, flash fiction and stories (and wondering if I’ll ever find time to finish my ‘prize-winning’ novel!).

At the Skylight 47 launch, me and Jessamine. I am the short one.

Proof that persistence pays off has been publication this month of my poem in literary magazine Skylight 47.   I went down to Galway for the launch with my friend *Jessamine O Connor,  who was representing the Hermit Collective, featured in this edition. We both got to read our poems, with a warm reception from a good sized audience, which was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. The magazine was launched by lovely poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.

Meanwhile,  although I’m rarely short of new ideas, I have recently  found myself recommending all writers have a go at revisiting some of their own old work from time to time –  after all, why reinvent the wheel? Now that’s not  suggesting you go off with someone else’s material, that’s plagiarism and is not what I’m on about here.

I’m talking about how a sideways look at something you wrote ages ago might just present a new opportunity. Often, old work can benefit from a refit.

Just because a story or poem has been rejected by a publisher, magazine or competition, doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something else with it. It may not have been what the publisher or judge was looking for at the time, but if you thought it was good enough once, why not again? And why should one really good idea be confined to a single form?

In my case, I’m often flirting with old flames (literary ones, of course) – I’ve even won a short story competition with a piece that started out as a poem, and I’ve recycled (upcycled?) poems into flash fiction and been subsequently competition shortlisted.

As I said, why reinvent the wheel?

*Jessamine O Connor launches her latest book of poetry ‘Pact’ on Friday, December 8th at King House, in Boyle, County Roscommon (ROI). She’s invited a few other poets to read some of their work too – and I’m one of them. A 5pm start – all welcome!

And the Winner Is…

I saw the light…

When I first dipped my toe into the Irish writing market, I admit I didn’t have a clue as to where I should start sending my creative endeavours. What to do with all those words? The shoebox under the bed was stuffed to overflowing.

Perhaps a writing group would help? But I soon discovered the people around me were equally clueless, or worse, secretive. I guess they thought sharing information about publishing opportunities was likely to do them out of success.

A few years down the line and I have now garnered a good bit of useful information about where to place stories and poems, and I’m happy to share the information here (no charge!).  We’ll save my constant angst about a writer’s need for publication and third-party validation for another day.

I’m reliably informed that competition placings and publication in anthologies and journals is good for raising your writerly profile, and it is attractive to publishers as proof that you can write.

But be aware that entering competitions or submitting to magazines can be quite a harrowing experience if you are of a delicate disposition.  You need to develop a thick skin as your freshly-minted masterpiece gets sent off into the ether for some stranger to ponder, and you’re left behind wondering what happened. For months sometimes, and then one day you find out by accident that you weren’t successful (God bless Twitter and all who boast in her!).

Competitions can be costly – and very (…ahem) competitive, with some of them receiving thousands of entries.  But the prizes are often well worth the effort, and of course, there’s the winner’s kudos. Nothing beats that giddy feeling you get when you’re the winner!

So, the following information I offer as a gift, based on my experiences as an amateur writer based in Ireland. Good luck!

  • First online stop for anyone in Ireland who is interested in writing should be writing.ie – a valuable resource with lots of helpful tips and information. It is updated regularly, so you need to keep dipping into this one.
  • If poetry is your thing, then a visit to Poetry Ireland is essential for competition listings and events.
  • The Irish Writers Centre is a valuable resource for anyone interested in literary endeavours, with info about competitions and bursaries. Sign up to their newsletter for regular updates.
  • Belfast writer Paul McVeigh has loads of interesting items up on his blog, including short stories from around the world, new and old, plus information about competitions here.
  • Ireland is home to a number of heavyweight literary magazines. Some of them accept submissions from newbies and run competitions, so check in regularly to keep up to date: The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Southword Journal, Crannóg Magazine, Skylight 47, Banshee.
  • Ireland has its own selection of popular magazines, although the market is pretty well saturated with UK-based publications. Woman’s Way publishes 800 word short stories (but doesn’t pay), Ireland’s Own  has annual writing competitions and opportunities for articles as well as fiction, although their guidelines admit they favour their regular contributors.
  • At the other end of the writing spectrum is the UK womag (women’s magazine) market, a paying market for short stories and features. They each have their own writers’ guidelines (and some don’t accept on-spec submissions). Patsy Collins pulls a lot of magazine info together for general reference and has an entertaining blog going  here.
  • Finally, another great resource for writers interested in competitions is Michael Shenton’s amusing offerings at Prize Magic.

Did I wish you good luck? Of course I did!

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?

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.