Tag Archives: Creative writing

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Procrastination

So. You are going to have a Writing Day. No appointments, no need to leave the house, no distractions – the kitchen floor doesn’t even need mopping – brilliant! Ahead, a whole day of writing .

Here’s what you do:

First, take a nice view, preferably one with a lovely comfy chair in front. Settle down to spend some time relaxing into the moment (mindfulness – it’s all the rage these days), watching the birds/clouds/treetops/passersby/traffic (delete as appropriate).

Imagine what a wonderful poem you could write – a sonnet, perhaps, 14 lines of stunning verse with a twist in the middle – based on your view of such extraordinary ordinariness. Words are hopping through your head, time to pin them down. A villanelle might be the way to go. What about a pantoum? Choices, choices.

Start hunting for a notebook. Not any old pad of paper, discarded chocolate wrapper or old envelope as Emily Dickinson did (I kid you not), but your special hand-stitched, pink floral A5 lined velum pad, the one that’s part bujo and part writing journal, full of  good ideas and the beginnings of poems and stories that you really should get around to finishing.

It might take a while to find the book because along the way you’re going to stumble upon distractions like the post arriving, 22 unread messages in your inbox, and the houseplants crying out for a watering. Then there’s a cup of Earl Grey to brew and a packet of ginger biscuits to locate (that alone can take a while since you’ve hidden them for reasons known only to yourself and you can’t remember where).

At this point, your partner/best friend/neighbour/least favourite sibling/offspring may call for a chat, either in person because they know you’re at home and you’re only writing (which isn’t real work as everyone knows), or because they’re on the same network and like to get their money’s worth with the free calls.

When you can get back to your chair-with-a-view, you might have to ignore the stomach rumbling because it’s now almost lunchtime. But you realise that you don’t have your favourite pen to hand, the one you’ve written your best work with.  Not that you’re superstitious or anything, but why take the chance? Spilt salt over the shoulder and into the eye of the devil, right? (left actually); no walking under ladders (isn’t that just common sense?); no putting shoes on the table (who does that anyway?); no opened umbrellas indoors (no need surely, unless your roof has a leak, which is bad luck in itself).

So the pen with which you wrote your prizewinning poems has been put in a safe place so it doesn’t get lost. And although it is eventually found, it is then definitely time for lunch, because even writers need to eat. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy affair of more than an hour or two. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from scratch is nice, and you can check out the news headlines while its cooking, make a couple of cats purr at the same time, and dash off a few important WhatsApp messages to make good use of your time. And you know you shouldn’t bolt your food because indigestion isn’t conducive to creativity, is it?

So then it is well into the afternoon when you head back to the nice view, pen and notebook at the ready (because first draft poems have to be proper pen on proper paper, no exceptions).  Time to recapture the moment when you felt a poem coming on.

Drat!

A blank. Nothing. Not really writer’s block (which I’ve heard described as what happens when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you), more a memory lapse. You’ve forgot what were the right words in the right order.

Time to stare into space (or back at the lovely view) in an attempt to pluck appropriate words from the ether. The thesaurus might help, but where did you leave it? If you’ve the energy left to look for it, that might pass a few more minutes…

And there you have it. Procrastination.  Distraction. Writing. A whole day of it. There’s nothing to it really, is there?

Stockings, and the Filling Thereof…

cat-tales-anthologyIf you know someone who likes cats and short stories (always a good combo in my opinion) this anthology might be a good Christmas stocking filler. A paperback with illustrations and 21 stories (including one of mine, ‘Waifs and Strays’), the proceeds go to two charities – Cats Protection and the Against Malaria Foundation. ‘Cat Tales; An Anthology of Short Stories’ is available at Amazon:  Cat Tales

Or there’s ‘The 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection: 21 New Stories’ which also includes a short, short story of mine, ‘Fitting In’ (which has nothing to do with cats!). These are stories and flash fiction from this year’s CreativeWritingMatters competitions, available on Amazon: 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection

BTW – I’m not in it for the money on this occasion; I receive nothing from the sale of these books (I even had to PAY (gasp!) for my own copies). It’s all about me trying to raise my writing profile. Although I did get paid £50 for coming second in the Exeter Flash Fiction Competition with ‘Fitting In’  🙂

 

 

Making A Show of Myself

 

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On stage with the Hermits…

It’s kind of weird, but the older I get, the more ‘look at me’ I’m game for. Where on earth did that come from? Aren’t I the shy, retiring type? Well apparently, no I’m not!

When one of my poems was shortlisted for the Boyle Arts Festival Poetry Competition back in July 2013, I was too cowardly to read it to an audience and the judge, poet Geraldine Mills, did the deed.  It was an ambitious pantoum, ‘Blackout’, which needed careful delivery. Geraldine did a wonderful job, but I was left kicking myself for not getting up there to read it myself; poets have a hard enough time finding an audience, and right there had been a large one on a plate.

Fast forward to the New Roscommon Writing Awards in November 2014 when poet Jane Clarke (bless her!) chose two of my poems for the shortlist, and I was expected to read them out loud. I remember thinking that I just had to keep reading to the end and then sit down, which is exactly what I did. No-one died and no-one jeered, and I rather liked the rousing applause which followed.

My late father was a college lecturer, well used to an audience, and in his later life he used to give talks about beekeeping, Austin 7s and other wondrous things.  He advised me to speak up and then shut up, which was sound advice for when I used to give talks myself. (Healing crystals and their uses was one of my specialities, just in case you’re wondering.)

But talking about something you know about is a million miles away from sharing something you’ve written, something personal and intimate like a poem.

So I set about curing myself of the nerves involved in reciting self-penned poetry.

I turned up to the Word Corner Café  in the Dock Arts Centre in Carrick-on-Shannon and mumbled my way through a poem about my mother, and again, no-one died or jeered.  So I did it again, and then again. Eighteen months later, I’m now one of the stalwarts, attending every second Tuesday of the month to regale whoever turns up with some of my words, and often those of other writers, too.

We get through an eclectic mix of opinion, poetry, stories and songs and I’ve found it to be wonderfully liberating.  Sometimes the gathering is quite small, but no matter. We’re there again on December 13th 2016, from 6pm until 7.30pm, when anyone interested in words can come along and listen or take part. I intend airing another poem about my mother and paying tribute to Leonard Cohen.

hermits-dec-16The Hermit Collective, a band of writers, artists and musicians who put on pop-up shows in the west of Ireland, gave me a break too. They’re well used to my poems about my mother (‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’, which is now in the latest Crannóg Magazine, got its first public airing with the Hermits).

We’re out again next week, on Thursday, December 8th at 7pm in Tricky McGarrigles, O’Connel Street, Sligo. Its free – and a great evening’s entertainment is more than likely, both for the performers and the audience.

And I might even read a poem that’s not about my mother.

 

Poking the Bad Tooth Side of Writing – Trying to Make Money

words-irelandWhat do you call a group of writers squashed into a hot room in County Leitrim’s Ballinamore Library on a Saturday afternoon?

It’s a trick question. Everyone knows there’s no collective noun to describe a gathering of writers tripping over each others’ egos as they describe their life and times as scribes.

But a few words sprang to mind as I drove home through the beautiful Leitrim countryside (Google Maps was right – Ballinamore is exactly one hour away).

Just in case you’re wondering where this is going, let me say from the start that all the words I thought of are positive: inspiring, entertaining, interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking.

I was not sure what to expect when I signed up for the first Words Ireland Writers’ Series. If I’d have known it was going to be so interesting – and relevant – I would have rounded up a few more of my local writer friends, but as it was I flew solo, not really expecting anything of worth to happen so far away from Dublin. Wrong!

Words Ireland turns out to be ‘a group of seven national literature resource organisations who work collaboratively to provide co-ordinated professional development and services to the literature sector’ (phew!). The Irish Writer’s Centre and the Stinging Fly are in there, of course.

On Saturday October 22nd 2016, local writers Michael Harding, Brian Leyden, Gerry Boland and Monica Corish were lined up for the first of a series of question and answer sessions, this one in Leitrim. I’m familiar with their work so I was keen to hear their views on what drives them to write, how they became writers and how they find (and keep) an audience. They didn’t disappoint.

Most writers are keen to hear how others do it – and make money from their work. But the panel were at pains to point out that hardly anyone can make a living from just the writing part of writing these days. It seems you have to agree to writing commercial children’s books when you’d rather be writing poetry, or have a partner with a ‘proper’ job bringing in a regular income, or rely on sometimes meagre bursaries and grants, or run creative writing classes…

The thorny issue of self-publishing was raised, and as expected created the start of a debate for and against (I’m still on the fence on that one. For me, third party validation in the form of a mainstream publisher is my goal. That is, until such time I admit defeat and head for Lulu.)

We heard about the MA route to publication (which I’ve considered myself recently). And we scratched the surface of the need for writers’ work to be better valued (what other profession gives away so much of its hard work for free? Which is what I’m doing right now, in a way.)

Then there was mention of the intriguing Creative Frame professional development network in County Leitrim which was lauded for its encouragement of the arts not just in Leitrim, but in its neighbouring counties as well (music to my Roscommon ears).

There was an impressive number of writers in the room who clearly take themselves seriously – highlighting the need for more regional networking opportunities like this (move over Dublin!).

As a result, I’ve now booked my ticket to the Allingham Festival in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, on November 5th. I’m looking forward to an Afric McGlinchey Poetry Workshop, and Irish Fiction Laurate Anne Enright in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson.

But I’m especially looking forward to another session with Bernadette Greenan of the Irish Writer’s Centre as she brings together more writers and poets from across the north west for a talk on professional development (she was the one who held the Saturday session in Ballinamore together so admirably). Wild Atlantic Writers is a free event on November 5th as part of the Allingham Festival

Meanwhile, you can read an interesting article about Words Ireland and writing for money, published in Friday’s Irish Times  here.