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!).
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!
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!
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.
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?
I can’t remember how I ever came to think that keeping alpacas was a good idea. We imported a small herd of them into Ireland in 2003, convinced they would make us a fortune and they’d become pets, alongside the laying hens and lying cats.
Trust me, alpacas don’t make friends with humans. They like other alpacas, of course. But they only ever tolerate humans, no matter how nice you are to them. Ours had a very cushy billet in the west of Ireland, and thankfully, they rarely spat at us. The spitting thing is a way of keeping order amongst themselves and it’s nasty if you get in the way – half-digested grass which is green, slimy and very smelly. And if it gets on your clothes, it is practically impossible to remove the stain.
We brought our alpacas over from Worcestershire via Scotland and Northern Ireland on a night when the skies were lit up with the Aurora Borealis. A memorable evening, which of course, I turned into a poem.
I have read the poem at a few functions recently, recalling that amazing evening when the sky was green and red and we thought that was the norm (we got that wrong as well, never seen the Northern Lights since).
We eventually found the alpacas new homes, but not before we’d collected a goodly amount of fleece from them over several years. I learnt to spin and discovered alpaca makes a lovely soft, hard-wearing yarn for knitting and crochet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pets, and how humans enjoy keeping companion animals. And I was considering what some people think of as pets, exotic creatures such as monkeys, or snakes, or iguanas. Even alpacas.
My first choice of pet will always be a tabby cat (like my third birthday present), but any cat will do really (rescued, not bred to be sold), plus now my dog, who is a surprising friend to me, given that I spent many years being terrified of her kind.
And if nothing else, pets can serve as inspiration for poems. Just for the craic, here’s a ditty I wrote ages ago about our white hamster, sadly a pet I never photographed.
Snowball, a Hamster
The cat has a mouse again
and it makes me consider
how many more fortunate,
furry creatures we have kept,
pets to nurture and cherish.
There have been many:
cats, rabbits, a dog,
and Snowball, a white hamster
carefully named by a six-year-old
who instantly lost interest.
He used to live in my study
(the hamster, not the child),
well away from feline temptation.
I’d let him skip along my desk
as I tried to write my memoirs
(the child, as well as the hamster).
When the time came
and poor Snowball ailed,
we took him in a shoe box
to the vet’s evening surgery,
humane dispatch for a fiver,
ahead of a State funeral,
with flowers and speeches,
even a few tears.
The shovel, or a brick,
would have been cheaper
to put him out of his misery,
but none of us could do it
(even the six-year-old,
who was really seven by now).
I remember how in his prime
Snowball would run across
my keyboard leaving a trail,
black pellets of rodent incontinence,
which I would eventually scoop up
and turn into a poem.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was becoming a mother.
I can’t imagine what I would have found to do with my time without children to fill my every waking minute. They still try do it, and they’re (allegedly) adults now. Although, these days I do sometimes manage to snatch a few hours free from them demanding what’s for dinner, or where are their socks/phone chargers/car keys (delete as appropriate).
It sounds like there are dozens of them. It only feels like that sometimes – they are just two, one of each, as they say. A son and a daughter, neither of whom has properly left home yet.
My own mother, pictured here with me many years ago (before my sister arrived on the scene), is now 93 years old. She lives in a care home and is quite frail and forgetful, which is sad because she used to be a very busy, capable, fit woman, who taught me loads.
She wrestled with barrage balloons at the tail end of the Second World War (as a member of the WRAF), succeeding as a feisty female in a male-dominated workplace. I have her to thank for my brand of feminism, which has never let me accept failure just because I’m a woman. At an early age I realised there were different rules for boys and girls, which just served to make me more determined to succeed. Women have to work harder in their careers to prove themselves – I was no exception, and was often bitter about such inequality. I like to think things won’t be so hard for the next generation.
My mother also taught me how to strive to become a domestic goddess, and I can still rustle up a Victoria Sponge, or sew a fine seam when the occasion arises.
These days, I have my mother to thank as a source of some of my more popular poetry. She’s at the heart of my attempts to blend pathos with humour.