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Are You Going to Scarborough…

OK, not Scarborough Fair… but even better, a Scarborough theatre! The Stephen Joseph, to be precise, an institution closely associated with Alan Ayckbourn.

My most recent play, Imaginationship, will be showcased on August 16th. It was one of five selected for a reading at the this celebrated institution over the summer. I’m traveling up for the event. I’ve never been to Yorkshire, not to mind say Scarborough – so I’m very much looking forward to the show. Do come along if you can.

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What’s the story, Rory?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story?

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.

 


Rolling with Rejection

It’s World Cup and Wimbledon; hopes are raised and dashed within hours. England, where I currently live, lost a semi-final match last night. I’m encountering a swathe of disappointed English people as I make my way through the day. It’s got me thinking about dealing with rejection. I could run an entire course on this (in fact, sometimes, I think I will). It’s part and parcel of a writer’s life and you need to be robust enough to deal with it. A writer who can’t do rejection is like a boxer who refuses to take punches. Learn a way to handle it, or get out of the ring now.

Some years ago I had a room-mate, lets call him Robert, who was an exceedingly talented writer and a super bright individual. Robert had come from a north of England working class family and had won a scholarship to a top college at Oxford to study law, and then proceeded to get a 1st. In a class ridden society such as England is, this is quite a feat. He then went on to barrister pupilage in London. So far, so successful. He struggled in London however, his working class roots a subtle bar from invitation to the glossiest circles, and he let it get to him. Robert decided to jack the law trade in and devote his time to his hobby, writing prose.

Robert was blessed with a wondrous poetic use of language and could craft very beautiful, visual prose. He also had an instinct for story. Within a year, a short story by Robert, had won a prestigious national prize. The way seemed set for a glittering career as a writer. Robert sent out his first novel manuscript to an agent of his choosing. It was rejected. Robert was speechless and sunk into a depression for a few months. Eventually he rallied round, spent another six months moving commas around pages and plucked up the courage to send it out again. And again it was rejected. This process was repeated a third time, after which Robert hit bottom and decided to never write again – and I learned a valuable lesson by proxy.

Robert’s book was slow-paced and poetic and not to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt it was good. It would eventually have been published, had he persevered and found the right agent/publisher. However, Robert could not take rejection, so he didn’t persevere. Following a lifetime of over-achievement, he had unreal expectations and the sense of privilege and entitlement that often accompanies high success at a young age – yes, even for those from working class backgrounds. If Robert had had the skills to roll with the blows, he would have no doubt become a barrister and a published and acclaimed author – but he did not know how to handle rejection, so he gave up. Dealing with the turn-downs is the most important skill a writer needs.


Writers’ Residencies

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A window at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for Artists, Co. Monaghan, Ireland.

For most, finding time to write is one of the hardest aspects of writing. Unless independently wealthy, one normally has to juggle a day job and family responsibilities with writing time – not an easy feat. Thankfully a solution is out there, focused writing time is possible with a writers’ residency at a dedicated artists’ colony. I’ve benefitted from a few over the years and cannot stress how fruitful and inspiring my time in each has been. The most sought after are ‘residencies‘ which often offer free board and accommodation and sometimes a stipend, for blocks of creative time that can range from a week to year. Sometimes, there may be a fee involved but at a ‘residency’ it would be heavily subsidised to ensure a stay is affordable for the artist. All such prestigious residencies entail an application and selection and approval process. The more generous the offer, the more competition there will be to gain a place obviously, and they tend to cater for published writers/produced playwrights with a track record only. These residencies are very well regarded by industry and acceptance is an asset to your C.V.

Then you have ‘retreats‘. These are usually privately owned affairs run as a business, often by people passionate about the arts. Or they may, like Arvon, involve creative writing courses that are highly respected, delivered by leading industry professionals.  Normally with these retreats, the writer/artist self-funds (though there are occasionally one or two grants available if you check the website).  As a rule, they cost the same as a stay in a regular hotel or B&B in the same area, but you have the added bonus of being in an environment dedicated to creativity and your fellow guests are also keen creatives. As you’re self funding, there is not normally a application process involved (at least not anything rigorous) – usually just a straightforward booking process, so retreats are the best solution for writers who have yet to publish or have their work produced. Retreats do not have the same prestige as the aforementioned residencies however, though some may straddle both definitions due to occasional grants or fellowships they may offer.

Ireland

Residencies:
Heinrich Böll cottage
Cill Rialaig
Dublin Writer in Residence

Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Retreats:

River Mill

Anam cara

Molly Keane Writers Retreat

France

Residencies:

Chateau la Napoule

Centre Culture lrlandais

Aerogramme Studio Brown’s

Retreats:

La Muse Inn

Great Britain

Residencies:

Gladstone’s Library

Hawkwood College

Hawthornden Castle

Cove Park

Retreats

Arvon Foundation

Urban Writers’

Germany

Schwarndorf

Switzerland

Jan Michalski

Italy

Ginestrelle

USA

Residencies:

Albee Foundation (New York State)

Anderson Centre (Minnesota)

Art Croft (Kentucky)

Atlantic Centre (Florida)

Caldera Arts (Oregon)

Djerassi (California)

Dorland (California)

Exeter (New Hampshire)

Hambidge (Georgia)

Headlands (California)

Hedge brook (Washington State)

Jentle (Wyoming)

KFW (Kentucky)

Kerouac (Florida)

Kimmel (Nebraska)

Norman Mailer Centre (NY, Wyoming, California)

Montalvo Arts (California)

Macdowell (New Hampshire)

Millay (New York State)

OMI (New York)

Kulcher (Minnesota)

Lynchburg (Virginia)

Radcliffe (Massachusetts)

Red Cinder (Hawaii)

Rocky Mountain (Colorado)

Poetry Centre (Arizona)

Provincetown (Massachusetts)

Spring creek (Oregon)

Saltonstall (New York State)

Stanford (Connecticut)

Studio in the Woods (New Orleans)

Virginia Centre (Virginia)

Ucross (Wyoming)

Vermont Studio (Vermont)

Wild Acres (North Carolina)

Woodstock (New York)

Wurlitzer (New Mexico)

Yaddo (New York state)

 

Retreats (some also offer a limited grants/fellowships)

Nantucket (Massachusetts)

Ragdale (Illinois)

Dairy Hollow (Arkansas)

 

Canada

Banff

Saskatchewan

Australia

Varuna

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you know of more, please let me know. If possible specify if it’s a residency (free or subsidised) or a retreat (self funded).


Ireland Says Yes

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A Proud Irish Woman Today

I am enormously proud of my country for voting an emphatic YES to repeal the 8th Amendment today.

There was broad agreement across generation and rural and urban demographics that change was needed. There was also a surge of support from young voters who travelled home from afar to kick Ireland into the 21st century. They will hopefully stay politically engaged for a time to come. I was (very positively) shocked by the extent of the support for this result – which contradicted many of the earlier polls.

We have shown the rest of the world that we are not a country of  two-dimensional cartoon social conservatism often lazily portrayed by international media and in art. We’ve been oppressed in the past but we have a relentless tendency to rise up against oppressors. Our yearning for freedom also has a tendency to win in the end. We are a modern, nuanced, complicated, determined nation – and I am very, very proud of us. In short – don’t mess with Irish women.


Yes

imageJames Joyce described ‘yes’ as the female word. The famous Irish writer bookended Molly Bloom’s soliloquy with it and ended his most famous publication, Ulysses, with this phrase: “and yes I said yes I will yes”. I’m urging those in Ireland who can, to vote ‘yes’ for female rights.

I’ve been out of Ireland for over twenty years and am no longer eligible to vote in referenda or general elections there. Tomorrow sees Ireland go to the polls to vote on whether or not women should have access to legal abortion in Ireland. As it stands, those who decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy have to make a very lonely and scary and potentially dangerous journey abroad. Ireland needs to stop exporting its problems and to grow up and provide women with the rights enjoyed by pretty much every other western nation.

Here in the UK, where I live, whenever discussing this situation, my English friends will usually draw on the refrain, “yes, but I suppose you’re such a Catholic nation”. I find this understanding of Ireland wearisome, glib and uninformed (and to be fair to the English, some Irish liberals draw on similar reasonings). We are a nation which, I’m proud to say, delivered a resounding ‘Yes’ (62%) in a popular vote to legalise gay marriage in 2015. This is not the result a staunchly Catholic nation would provide. It is however, a result you might find unsurprising in a particularly patriarchal culture. Ireland is far more patriarchal than it is Catholic (the Catholic Church pretty much lost its influence in Ireland in the 1980s/1990s). Whilst in its heyday, Catholicism certainly bolstered the native patriarchal culture, it is important to not to conflate the two. It is patriarchy that remains prevalent and far reaching in Ireland. One needs to know what one is fighting.

The polls tell us this is too tight to call, if ‘yes’ succeeds, it’ll be by a hair’s breadth. I’m dreading a ‘Trump’ or ‘Brexit’ result here. If you care about the rights of women and can vote in this referendum, please do.


And your point is…?

If you fly into the sun…

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.


My Grandma Always Says…

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The graveyard is full of indispensable men. 

Writers worth their ink need to be making some point with their story. By that, I mean your tale ought not be solely just a boy-meets-loses-regains-girl trip.

Beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your comment on how humanity works, or doesn’t. It is a writer’s (or artist’s) job to present the human condition as they interpret it. It isn’t meant to be heavy and scary, I’m simply suggesting that once you’ve written your story, or even just have an idea for one, you should sit back and consider what it could be saying on a larger, universal scale.

A good way to understand this concept is to 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 fickle (Tortoise and the Hare).

A good place to seek inspiration 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 this philosophy.

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

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.

 

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What a Character!

 

Imaginationship Atilla Akinci, John Sackville

Atilla Akinci as Gediminas and John Sackville as Bazzy in my play Imaginationship

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height.

What about their gait, posture and walk? Does he flutter, jerk, flap or glide?

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

Does s/he resemble an animal?

What is their natural scent?

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag/beside table?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Imaginationship: EXTRA SHOW added!

The entire run Imaginationship at the Finborough Theatre has SOLD OUT! So, we’ve added an EXTRA PERFORMANCE, a 2pm matinee on Monday 22nd, due to the extraordinary demand for tickets. If you wish to come, tickets for this extra date go on sale on Friday 19th at 12pm, but please book asap as they’ll sell quickly: Finborough Theatre.

Imaginationship Patience Tomlinson. Bart Suavek