Tag Archives: Creative writing

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.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

dexter-catI quite like my own company.

No-one to comment about what I’m doing/should be doing/have done.

No-one to mind the music I’m playing or if the window is open or closed.

No-one to share the (accidentally vegan) ginger biscuits.

And no-one to interrupt when the creative juices are flowing.

But everyone know that you can have too much of a good thing. I mean, look at Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’.  He started talking to a basketball when he’d had enough of solitary confinement.

And I kind of know what that was all about. Because after a while of pleasing myself with no-one around to comment, I’ll set off looking for company.  And not just someone to talk to – someone to share my writing with. Which is why I take myself off to public poetry readings at the Dock in Carrick on Shannon, and performances with the Hermit Collective.

Third party validation was one of the topics we covered in the recent Journal Keeping course I ran in Charlestown.  It ran on from the unanswerable ‘Why Do I Write?’ question.

We’d already established that keeping a journal is a Very Good Thing for maintaining your sanity. But essentially, in order for it to work properly, it should be private and for your eyes only. Meaning you should be able to write exactly what you want about whatever (and whoever) you want, without censure.

But then we got around to discussing third party validation. Surely writers put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with the intention of other people reading their words? We seldom write just for ourselves – we want someone else to read what we’ve written.

One of the Journal Keeping participants was adamant that as a creative person she could only engage in writing that was broadcast (in the widest sense of the word) for other people to appreciate. The same with art, music, needlework, craft activities. So it turned out journaling was not for her.

But for the rest of us, we agreed that writing for ourselves and no-one else was a useful part of the creative process.

Empty your head onto paper in your journal – and then pick out the bits you want to go public with, develop them, and accept that some people may like them and some won’t.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right here, right now  🙂

And for your enjoyment, a cute cat picture.  This is Dexter who lives a charmed life with a number of aunties in Dylan Thomas’s old stomping ground in Swansea.

Exactly The Right Number Of Words

ernest hemingway (2)I had a good deal on petrol this week. My car runs on unleaded and I was given a voucher offering me 5c off every litre. So I filled up with 46 litres and totally confused the girl at the till.

For some reason her cash register wasn’t set up to deduct 5c a litre automatically, so she had to figure it out manually.

‘That’s €2.30 off the total,” says I, trying to be helpful. She consulted her well-thumbed ready-reckoner (remember them?). But clearly, she didn’t believe it (or me). Two colleagues and a calculator were consulted before she conceded, by which time a bit of a queue had built up behind me.

Back in the day, before phones had calculators and bleeping tills had everything automated, sales assistants had to use their brains to work out percentages or change.

Now I wouldn’t be the sharpest knife in the maths drawer (I was totally baffled by calculus and trigonometry), but I find some elements of mathematics very useful. I’ll even work out percentages and totals in my head, just so I have a rough idea of what to expect when I get to the checkout (that way I know if I’m being ripped off or not), and I know how to count back change accurately. (I’m sometimes wrong, but that’s not the point here).

At the petrol station, I’d worked out a 10c reduction would be €4.60 and then halved it. Simples!

But don’t get me started on the rounding up and down thing we have going on here in Ireland as we head for the abolishment of one cent coins.

Which brings me on to word counts.

There’s a little icon on the corner of my computer screen which tells me how many words I’ve written. Handy, although it takes the fun out of guessing. It should make the task of writing to a word limit easier. But I’m not sure it does.

Flash fiction competitions seem to be a moveable feast. Some of them want 250 words, others 300 or 350. Then there’s the 400 or 500 word stories. And I’ve even seen 1,000 words described as ‘flash’.

Ernest Hemingway (the man with the typewriter pictured above) famously cornered the six-word story market with: ‘For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.’  He’s a writer I’ve admired for years, although I wouldn’t have liked the man himself (all that huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’). But what a writer!

I’ve had a good few goes at the six-word story challenge myself, but my efforts tend to sound like gutter press news headlines: ‘Reduced petrol price flummoxes dumb blonde’. Yes? Nah!

Anyway, I’ve the premise for a brand new short story (nothing to do with the price of petrol) and I think I can tell it in exactly the right number of words. I’m just having trouble figuring out exactly how many that is…