It’s How I Roll, baby

writing woman

The year starts, and I hit the ground running. I’m busy, and I’m not complaining. This year so far (and I’m not out of January yet) I’ve lined up a performance of a play of mine at The King’s Head theatre in Islington, in May. Next week, I’ve got a read through of another play of mine in Marylebone. And then there’s my PhD and my radio plays and my work as Literary Assistant at a new writing theatre. Funny thing is that when I’m busy, I achieve most. If you want something done, ask a busy person. I’m at my professional best when I’m stressed, with a to-do list in hand and no time to take a break.

We all work in different ways. Some writers need planning and easy, soft pacing. My approach is broad stroke, manic, if slightly anarchic – but I get stuff done. Likewise, we all perform better at different times of the day. Many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write, hoping the dream state will have left a creative legacy. The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. There are writers who say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Manic or meditative, find whatever works for you.


New Year, Old Friends

I’ve been reconnecting with old friends from various chapters in my life. Today, I spent some time with an old painting tutor of mine in Budapest, the wonderful Zsofi Varga. She showed me her new website, and I was touched to see that it hosts these old pieces I painted some ten years ago (or more!). I really must do more visual art this year.

Art begets art. Whatever form of art you explore, it will inspire other art projects and this can cross forms. A poet can conjure new ideas from a dance; a musician can be moved to compose by a script. I a primarily a writer of  drama and prose fiction but as an Art College alumna – I often meet my muse in the visual arts. Here are some of my old works:

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http://www.varosligetimuterem.hu/hu/


And So This is Christmas

Christmas

Mulled wine wafting, shops rammed, people pushing, choirs jingling, lights jangling… Christmas is all about atmosphere and a good time to think about creating mood.

If you require a spooky setting, you may be inclined to set your story in an environment that most would find unnerving such as a disused factory, an isolated house, a museum at night etc… If your novel is a romance, then perhaps an elegant European hotel on a lake might do the trick.

ALTHOUGH….

Challenging Your Readers’ Preconceptions

…You could think about capturing your reader’s imagination by turning settings on their head. In Alex Garland’s book, The Beach, he took a paradisiacal environment and made it a hellish place, as did William Golding in Lord of the Flies.

Likewise, you could take a grim, poor council estate riddled with crime and drugs and set a love story there. Endear readers by accentuating the positives in the ugly setting (sense of community spirit, humour etc…).

Surprise and challenge your readers’ preconceptions, it will make for a memorable tale. Why not take a suburban house and people it with elves to create a Fantasy novel. What about an action thriller set around the world of chess? Or yoga? Horror often works all the better when set in a mundane, everyday location rather than Dracula’s Castle. Think outside that castle.


The Cat in the Box: episode 5 MONDAY EVENING

A transvestite pub-owner, his emo daughter, 15 missing cats, an asthmatic punk, a keen teen vlogger in an Irish pub:

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Broadcasts in eight short (5 min.) episodes, on KCLR96fm at 8:15p.m. Mon-Thurs for two weeks from Nov. 30th

Calamity Rain and her cross-dressing father, Feidhlim Phelan, live in a darkened Kilkenny City pub, recently closed down by health and safety officials. They entertain themselves by tormenting unwitting tourists, subjecting them to unpleasant pranks. However, this existence is threatened when Feidhlim beckons an asthmatic middle-aged punk grappling with his own mortality, and Calamity invites along Molly-May Curnihane, a young teen with a vlog dedicated to missing Kilkenny cats. Zany and fast-paced, the series is a surreal comment on contemporary familial relationships and inter-generational dynamics.

The Cat in the Box stars Michael Power (Game of Thrones, Vikings), Michael Quinlan (This is England ’90), Ema Lemon (Garter Lane), Niamh McCann (Waterford Youth Arts).


The Fall

Hamstead Heath in November.

Hamstead Heath in November.

November and the trees are getting naked. The parks are full of kickabout leaves and the landscape is awash with crimson, orange and yellow. It’s a good time to talk about shedding all that is not necessary – in other words, editing.

Murder’ or ‘Kill your darlings’ is an adage attributed to the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, advising writers to cut the words / phrases to which they are most attached, in order to strengthen the work. It is good advice when editing, as often we writers shoehorn in a delicious description which doesn’t do an enormous amount for the piece as a whole. It is simply a bauble. Time to get the gun out.

Editing makes the job of writer a rather schizophrenic affair where one has to don two very different caps. The first cap is that of the creative free thinker who is focused on the big picture and is not too worried about the details. This is the person who comes up with the story, the theme, the basic structure, the person who invents characters and decides on the tone. This artist-writer will draw up the first draft of the story, writing only to please themselves. Finishing a draft wearing this cap is only some of the journey, however…

Next comes the cap of editor-writer. This is when the writer combs through the text, ruthlessly chopping, restructuring and cutting unnecessary/ unsuitable words, characters, scenes, phrases etc… or ‘murdering your darlings’. This is the writer preparing the text for other people. It is a good idea to leave a few weeks between your artist and editor incarnations.

Editing can be painful, and time-consuming. You’ve quite likely become attached to some characters, scenes, words and phrases and are loathe to see them go. Don’t worry, you can store them in your “writer’s bag” for use at a future time in a more suitable context. In the meantime, get pruning…

Chopping advice:

Cut all surplus adjectives and adverbs.

Examine the phrases you’ve shoehorned in just because you liked the sound of them – do they really fit that scene? Be honest. If not, bin them.

Take out all vague words such as “seem/seemingly” and try to do without your “justs”.

Look at all sentences that run for two or three lines. Do they really need to be that long? Can you reduce them or break them up? If you can, do so.

Active forms are better than passive forms, where possible (ie. “John cleaned the flat” rather than, “the flat was cleaned by John”).

Finally, every writer on Earth needs a reader or two – fresh eyeballs to run over your work and give you honest feedback. I suggest using three friends whom you trust will be frank with you. You don’t have to take everything they say on board. Do consider what they say, however, and if all three come back and say a character is not working. The character is not working. Rewrite.


The End

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In two of the countries I’ve lived in, Hungary and France, November 1st is the day upon which one visits the graves of parted loved ones… In Ireland, you visit on Nov. 2nd. It’s a time to reflect and remember and to pay respect.

I love cemeteries. Not in any morbid way, I find them inspiring, sobering and oddly calming. They happen to be very beautiful places around this time of year too.. teeming with autumn leaves. They are momento mori, a reminder that our time here is fleeting, and we should use it wisely and well. They also underscore the fact that everything, and everyone, has an end.

Ending a project can be difficult. Sometimes we don’t want to let go… here’s a checklist to see if your bun is done.

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!


Listen to ‘Shellakybooky’

Shellakybooky Podcast

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Listen to my Radio Dramas

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A number of people have asked me about listening to podcasts of my radio dramas. Six of them are available at the moment, hosted by the radio stations that first broadcast them.. The urls for the podcasts are listed in the column on the right hand side of this page. Please cut and paste the url and it should bring you to the relevant podcast. One more, The Cat in the Box, will follow shortly.

I hope you enjoy them…


Shellakybooky broadcast

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Budapest, Hungary, 2015. Nursing a broken heart, Mar Walsh travels from Waterford to Hungary to stay with her sister Brigette Walsh Cooney and family. Mar is impressed by her sister’s seemingly idyllic expat existence. Brigette simply ‘does not do negativity’ and her days are full of champagne and yoga. All is not how it seems, however, and cracks are soon evident in the Cooney’s perfect veneer. A mistress, a graffiti-obsessed son, an anarchist and a gay minister focused on change, all combine to shake the Cooney’s world and expose its fragility as the country’s political problems arrive on their doorstep in the form of a revolution.

Broadcasting on Monday, October 26th, 6pm-7pm (Irish time) on WLRfm.com

 


Being Pathetic

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It was a dark and stormy …

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – I always think of Thomas Hardy when asked to give an example. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is a little out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description and frankly, how dull it can be for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer de rigueur in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. For example, if your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.

Personally, I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a “pathetic fallacy” weather report. That’s the biggest cliché in the cliché box, it’s just pathetic …


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