Art begets art. Great inspiration can be found in complementary art forms. A poet can conjure new ideas from a dance; a musician can be moved to compose by a script.
My second love is visual art. I enjoy painting. I spent a year at art college many moons ago, and although I ultimately pursued writing rather than painting, I often hide out in painting when I’m struggling to find writing inspiration.
This period lends itself very well to re-discovering art forms you haven’t visited in a while. Part of the fun of painting for me is that I’m not a professional. No one expects much of me, so I’m able to approach it as a child would, carefree with no pressure – and that is very liberating and allows for flow.
Here are some of my lockdown efforts. Have you been experimenting with other art forms?
The playwright and director Donald Howarth (1931-2020) and myself at the Nick Darke Award, National Theatre, 2016.
These are strange days indeed. My own circumstances have been heightened by the loss of a very dear friend to cancer in late March. Donald Howarth was an extraordinary spirit, a true one off. Of course, in the face of a global health crisis unseen in our lifetimes, one death feels like a footnote. But Donald was very dear to me, and I’ll miss him beyond measure. Our friend Harriet Devine penned this lovely tribute to him in TheTheatreTimes.com. Do read, and appreciate how special this man was.
Snowdrops in London’s Regent’s Park, St. Brigid’s Day, Feb. 1st, 2020.
In Ireland, February 1st, St. Brigid’s Day, is the first of spring. Admittedly, we’re a bit ahead of ourselves weather-wise, but these snowdrops in London’s Regent’s Park get it. With an opening as elegant and simple as a snowdrop – spring must be a good thing.
Just as nature opens with a simple attention grabber – so should your work.
Your first line is probably the most important in your work. It should surprise and intrigue your reader and somehow give a taste of what is to come. Ideally, it should be unusual or uncanny and most importantly, it should encourage your reader to read on…
‘”Damn,” said the Duchess.” is a first line attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched. Regardless of its provenance, this line is arresting, or was in its day. “Damn” was a pretty raw word in 1920 or so, rarely uttered in front of ladies, not to mind say by one, and then one of high social standing. So, an opening line such as this was written to shock, to intrigue, to grab the readers’ attention and it is a good idea to find one with a similar punch in the modern age.
Thereafter, is often a good idea to follow your first line with a pacy set of three chapters. These are also the showpiece you’ll be sending off to agents and publishers, so make sure they’re written to hook.
Some writers write their last chapter first, so they can figure out their plot, and then leave writing those all-important first few pages until last. In fact, the very last piece of writing they might do is the first line. Therefore, don’t fret over your opening, get the rest of your work down and come back to it later if necessary.
And, take note that just as your first line should reach out and grab your reader – your final line should linger with your reader for sometime afterwards…
Can you guess which works gave us the following opening lines? Answers below
1) ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
2) ‘I’m writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
3) ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
4) ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
5) ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’
6) ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’
7) ‘Mother died today.’
8 ) ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’
9) ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
10) ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.’
Nollaig na mBan
In Ireland, the queen of holidays falls on the feast of kings. January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany – and the day when Irish women finally own Christmas.
January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas and the final day of the festive period, is know in Ireland as “Nollaig na mBan” (literally “Women’s Christmas”). Traditionally, this was when women would gather to feast and drink – and the men take over the housework, childcare, and serve the women food and beverages for the duration of the celebration (an extraordinary reversal back in the day…).
These days, Nollaig na mBan is simply a great excuse to gather and celebrate sisterhood and all the female friendships and relationships in your life. I love this holiday and think we should export it like we did St. Patrick’s Day and Hallowe’en. Frankly sisters, it’s too good to keep to ourselves.
For the unIrish, more info here:
In a week when this old idiom is getting a lot of airtime, I thought it was time to hail the proverb – those little nuggets of philosophy that present complicated reflections in a simple and entertaining way.
Writers worth their ink need to making a point with their story. Art must contain some comment on life, on human existence. Therefore, beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your take on how humanity works, or doesn’t… Consider Aesop’s Fables, each one is a tale that could be enjoyed on a superficial level by a child, yet there is a deeper meaning, or moral, which endeavors to teach the child some universal truth about life, ie being slow yet determined is often better than being hasty and easily distracted (Tortoise and the Hare).
A good place to seek inspiration for a comment on universal truths is a list of proverbs. A proverb is usually a metaphor and encapsulates in simple terms, a lesson from the common experience of humanity. Here’s an exercise that might get you going: sit down and have a think about the specific meaning of the following and then go freewrite a story illustrating (Or disproving) this philosophy.
You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
The belly has no ears.
Trees don’t grow to the sky.
A dumb priest never got a parish.
The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.
Eaten bread is soon forgotten.
The squeaky door gets the oil.
If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito.
Graveyards are full of indispensable people.
The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
There is a theory that the brain is more creative in the morning, especially in your waking moments. For this reason, 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. The resultant notes are called “morning pages”.
Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will jot down the very first words that come to mind – however nonsensical. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “writing rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind. When writers write in the morning, so the theory goes, they are closer to their sleeping state and the mind is more imaginative and/or receptive to ideas.
Nontheless, there are plenty of writers who write late at night – for the same reason that they say the closer to sleep they are, the more creative their ideas. Then there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).
Therefore, it is clear that different times of the day work for different people and it is really of no consequence whether you are a morning, day or night writer. What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment and find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write, but do write.
The third person (he/she/it) is the most common narrative point-of-view. The third person observes the main character(s) from a distance, describing how others might see/consider your protagonist. In other words, it gives the narrator greater scope and view privileges than the first person narrator.
If you are writing an extended piece of fiction, you might find it easier and more accommodating to work with a third person narrator. The following are some varieties of this narrative point-of-view
* Nowadays, it is common to have a third person narrator that observes your main character whilst simultaneously looking over his/her shoulder and seeing the story almost from his/her point of view. This ‘over-the-shoulder’ third person narrator can provide some of the advantages of the first person without the drawbacks – however, it is somewhat limited as you are largely viewing events from your character’s POV. For emerging writers, this third person narrative may be a safer bet if wanting to attract an agent.
* You may want your narrator to be quite separate from your character, however. In which case, you could have your narrator follow him/her from a distance, observing actions as if a camera and not directly informing the reader of the character’s inner thoughts.
* Or you could have an omniscient third person narrator – a ‘God-like’ storyteller who sees all and knows all.
The “It” narrative
This is an unusual form of third person narration that tells a tale from the point of view of an object or an animal. An “it” narrative might conceivably be the story of a ring, told by the ring, as it recounts its many owners etc…
Some books/plays/films are narratives told from various POVs. More common in Victorian prose than in contemporary writing, multi narrators allow for a vigorous description of a community and is useful if the author wants to concentrate on the interconnectivity of a place.
Whichever variety you choose, it is important to be style consistent throughout your work (or if you aren’t, have a reason for that).
The start of the academic year is an important time of year in France, as I recall, where it’s marked on the calendar as “La Rentrée”. It’s celebrated as a new time, a new start, a time for resolutions, a blank page. Writers can use this time to get work flowing, to launch a new project. The challenge is to find inspiration – however, prompts are always at hand.
Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can even see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Of course, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from your own subconscious.
Hopefully, you don’t have to have damp patches around your writer’s garret. Yesterday’s newspaper will fulfil a similar role. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you start to play with it.
Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to news stories. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.
The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.
Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.
Reddit and gossip sites are wonderful wells to explore for story. Don’t neglect True Crime mags. One of the best tips I ever received as a writer is “don’t be a snob about where you get your story”.
A wise writer once said that editing your manuscript is like putting and octopus to bed, no sooner do you get one tentacle all tucked up than another escapes. You’re checking your structure, your character development, plot, sub-text, dramatic action, theme, language, proof-reading and layout. However, you can also spend so long at the various tentacles that what you’re actually doing is delaying the send out. That’s fear. Don’t be a slave to fear. The following check list might help you decide if your cephalopod is properly tucked in and 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!